Protesters rally in Milwaukee in front of the Varsity Theatre at Marquette University Thursday ahead of the one-hour debate between Republican Sen. Ron Johnson and his Democratic challenger, Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes. (Photo | Isiah Holmes)
From the start Thursday night, the final debate between Republican Sen. Ron Johnson and his Democratic challenger, Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes, was an exchange of caustic barbs and accusations that continued for nearly a full hour.
With virtually every question that WTMJ-TV reporters Charles Benson and Shannon Sims asked the two candidates about a position or detail on a policy point, whoever answered would quickly pivot to an attack on the opponent — sometimes on the subject of the question, and sometimes on a barely adjacent topic.
The candidates went over a lot of familiar ground. Barnes wrote off Johnson as a rich, out-of-touch incumbent who has used his two terms in the Senate to vote for policies benefiting the wealthy and ignoring the needs and interests of the broad working populace. In his barrages of Barnes, Johnson took a wider aim that swiped repeatedly at Gov. Tony Evers, President Joe Biden, and the Democratic majority in Congress.
Time will tell whether the Thursday night debate gives the Senate race a reset. Barnes has fallen behind Johnson among likely voters in the most recent Marquette Law School poll. But the race remained tied among registered voters in that survey. Scot Ross, a longtime Wisconsin progressive advocate, sees an opportunity in those numbers.
“We know that turnout is key to elections, because Republicans have been trying to suppress the vote for years,” Ross said in an interview before the debate.
In Ross’ view, Barnes had to hit four crucial points: abortion rights and Johnson’s votes for laws restricting them; Johnson’s drive to make Social Security subject to annual negotiations in Congress; Johnson’s votes on tax bills that benefited the wealthy in general and him in particular; and Johnson’s comments sympathetic to the Jan. 6 Capitol rioters.
Barnes indeed did hit each of those markers. But Lou Jacobson, Washington bureau chief for Politifact, says the salience especially of the insurrection remains murky.
“It’s certainly a very reasonable approach to take if you’re Barnes to raise those issues,” Jacobson said Thursday afternoon, referring to the insurrection. But that might not be enough to persuade voters who aren’t already backing Barnes.
“I think January 6, for better or worse, tends to motivate the Democratic base more than it does independents or Republicans,” he said.
Squaring off on stage
The pommeling between Barnes and Johnson began with the one-minute introductions each delivered on the stage at Marquette University’s Varsity Theatre in Milwaukee.
Johnson touted his biography as a teenage restaurant dishwasher, business owner and two-term senator. “In stark contrast, my opponent has little to no work experience in the private sector,” he said.
Barnes related the now-familiar story of growing up the son of a third shift assembly line worker and a school teacher — jobs that won the family a berth in the middle class and are now “harder and harder to come by,” he said. “And that has been made increasingly more difficult because of out-of-touch politicians like Sen. Ron Johnson, who continues to leave working people behind.”
Judging by the timing of their cheers and applause, the audience heavily favored Barnes. Several times Benson urged them unsuccessfully to refrain so as to allow more time for questions.
Both candidates defended themselves on issues where they’ve been criticized. WTMJ’s Sims noted a $24 million Republican negative ad campaign depicting Barnes as soft on crime and asked what he would say to voters questioning him about the issue.
Charging that Johnson “hasn’t done a single thing for us,” Barnes talked of losing friends to gun violence and called for stronger relationships between law enforcement and the communities they work in. He linked crime to poverty and the lack of resources. “This is also about making sure we do the things that we know prevent crime from happening in the first place,” he said.
Barnes pointed out that Johnson voted against the 2021 American Rescue Plan Act, which provided $100 million that the Evers administration distributed for law enforcement, public safety and crime prevention programs in the state. “Ron Johnson voted against it because he would rather play politics,” Barnes said.
Johnson pushed back on the “do nothing” charge. “I’m proud of my accomplishments,” he said, citing a vote for “tax cuts for 20 million businesses” and his introduction of the federal “right to try” law that makes it easier for terminally ill patients to take experimental therapies for their condition.
In a slip of the tongue, Johnson referred to “Sen. Barnes,” then corrected the title to “Lt. Gov. Barnes.” Cheers from the audience drowned him out before Johnson could deliver an intended line. After recovering, he said of Barnes, “All he has are lies and distortions because he can’t run on the record of 40-year-high inflation and record gas prices.”
Pinning the blame for inflation
It was Johnson’s first reference to what became a repeated theme of his, blaming the inflation that has been running for more than a year entirely on legislation that Biden and the Democratic majority in Congress have passed: ARPA, the bipartisan infrastructure bill enacted in late 2021 and the tax, climate change and health care bill enacted this past August.
When Benson asked whether Congress could do anything to combat inflation’s surge, Johnson took pride in his votes against those bills. “The solution is to stop the deficit spending and stop growing our debt,” he said.
As Benson pressed him on potential responses that Congress could make to shore up Social Security, Johnson again boasted of his “No” votes, including against the $369 billion climate and tax bill. He called it “the Green New Deal energy boondoggles we can’t afford to pay for.”
When his turn came, Barnes called for tax relief targeting the middle class and making permanent the temporary child tax credit expansion that was included in ARPA.
“We’ve got to stop giving tax deductions and tax breaks for the wealthiest people,” Barnes said. He pointed to the Trump administration’s 2017 tax cut, which Johnson held up until the addition of a $215 million tax deduction that benefited Johnson and some of his donors.
“We need to make sure working class people get to keep more of what they earn,” said Barnes. “He has no problem blowing a $2 trillion dollar hole in the deficit by voting for the 2017 tax bill that benefited corporations and the most wealthy Americans.”
And so it went over the course of the hour that covered issues ranging from the war in the Ukraine to a variety of economic questions to abortion rights. (Barnes favors letting women make the decision to terminate a pregnancy in consultation with a doctor. Johnson called for a one-time statewide referendum to settle what should be the limits on the procedure in Wisconsin — an idea state Democrats have embraced, with Evers calling the Legislature into special session to take it up, but which Republican legislative leaders rejected, gaveling in and out in a matter of seconds.)
On the question of what a suitable federal minimum wage would be, Johnson dismissed the idea altogether and said that few people currently work for the federal minimum. “I think government screws up more things, causes more problems or exacerbates more than they actually solve,” he said, again blaming deficit spending, inflation and the Democrats as the root cause of economic hardship.
Barnes called it “shameful” that the federal minimum hasn’t risen past $7.25 since 2009, noting that there had been calls to double that in 2014.
“For one of the most wealthy members of Congress to sit and say that Congress shouldn’t set a standard of living and raise the minimum wage is the frustration that so many people have in this country,” Barnes said. “It’s why people are tuned out of politics, because they feel like nobody is looking out for them.”
Johnson has supported making Social Security part of the federal discretionary budget, subject to annual negotiation, but he denied the accusation that he wanted cuts in the program. “I want to save Social Security, I want to save Medicare,” he insisted, once again blaming inflation, this time for threatening those programs.
But Barnes said turning Social Security into a discretionary budget program “means he’s coming for your retirement.” Increasing taxes on the wealthy, including eliminating the income cap at which they pay into the program, “is how we strengthen Social Security.”
Gun violence, police and the Capitol riot
The two also tangled over gun violence and police reform. Barnes advocated universal background checks for firearms purchasers; Johnson suggested stronger faith would curb shooting deaths and criticized Barnes and the Evers administration for seeking to reduce the number of incarcerated people in Wisconsin by 50%.
Johnson reiterated his opposition to ending the principle of qualified immunity for police officers, which shields them from civil liability for violating rights of civilians. Disrespect has left police “dispirited,” he said.
On that subject, his challenger shifted the focus. “No police officers in this country were more dispirited than the ones who were present at the United States Capitol on January 6,” said Barnes, reciting the accounts of death and injury of Capitol police in the riot. “So this talk about support for law enforcement, It’s not real,” he said.
Johnson responded by referring to “the summer riots” in 2020, including in Kenosha after the police shooting of a Black man. He accused Barnes of “inciting” the violence by suggesting the shooting resembled “a vendetta.” Barnes, in turn, noted comments that Johnson made calling the Capitol rioters “patriots” and tourists.”
The closing statements at the end of the hour again mixed aspiration with criticism. Before those statements, however, Benson posed a final question.
“When we traveled around the state talking with voters, we heard repeatedly from people tired of divisive politics and attack ads,” Benson said. With that in mind, he asked the candidates to say in 30 seconds “what you find admirable about your opponent.”
Barnes went first. “The senator has proven to be a family man,” he said of Johnson. “And I think that’s admirable. You know that’s absolutely to be respected. He speaks about his family, he’s done a lot to provide for them. I absolutely respect that, Mr. Johnson.”
Johnson picked up the theme — at first. “I appreciate the fact that Lt. Gov. Barnes had loving parents — a schoolteacher, father worked third shift, so he had a good upbringing.”
He paused for just a moment, then plunged ahead. “I guess what puzzles me about that,” Johnson said, “is with that upbringing, Why has he turned against America? —”
At those words the crowd broke into a roar of disapproval. Benson and Sims cut both Johnson and the spectators off.
“We said something admirable,” Sims said pointedly.
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