Wisconsin Republican Sen. Ron Johnson and Democratic Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes are political opposites.
But as the two prepare for what could become one of the most closely watched Senate races of the 2022 cycle, they are leveling similar attacks to define each other: Casting their opponent as too extreme and out of touch with Wisconsin voters, while arguing the other is not a true representative of the state’s working class.
“The problem is Ron Johnson has turned his back on working people and I’ve fought for working people my entire career, even before I was an office,” Barnes said when asked for the single biggest difference between himself and Johnson, who made millions running a plastics manufacturer before he entered public office. “His wealth isn’t the problem – it’s the fact that he is ultra-wealthy and out of touch.”
Johnson’s campaign declined to make him available to CNN, but a Johnson campaign adviser previewed a notably similar message.
“(Barnes) is out of touch with where the majority of the state is,” said adviser Ben Voelkel, citing some of the more liberal positions Barnes has backed throughout his career. “Mandela Barnes talks a lot about his dad working the third shift work. … Mandela Barnes hasn’t done any of that. He has been a career political activist.”
Johnson has already described Barnes as Democrats’ “most radical left candidate,” adding that “a radical left Senator from Wisconsin is not the solution.” Johnson recently called him “a progressive puppet out to fundamentally change America.”
The attacks – delivered ahead of Tuesday’s Wisconsin Senate primaries, which appear to be already decided – are previews of what will likely become an acrimonious race, one that experts expect will see tens of millions spent on negative advertising as each side attempts to solidify their base voters in November.
Johnson, the incumbent, faces no primary challenge after he opted to run for a third term. The senator, who promised to only serve another full term when he ran for reelection in 2016, waffled on the third term for months, but eventually decided to get into the race because “America is in peril” and he wants to end Democratic control of Washington.
Barnes initially had significant primary challengers, including Milwaukee Bucks executive Alex Lasry, who spent more than $11 million of his own money airing ads throughout the state. But over the span of a week last month, Barnes’ three top primary opponents – Lasry, Wisconsin state Treasurer Sarah Godlewski and Outagamie County Executive Tom Nelson – all dropped out of the race and endorsed the lieutenant governor, effectively ending the primary.
“I could not have imagined it ending up this way,” Barnes told CNN. “To me, it shows just how important beating Ron Johnson is, just how important expanding the democratic majority is.”
As the two candidates turn their focus on each other, Wisconsin represents yet another example of a high stakes Senate race where the contrast between candidates is significant, including Republican Herschel Walker vs. Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock in Georgia, Republican Mehmet Oz against Lt. Gov. John Fetterman in Pennsylvania and Republican Blake Masters vs. Democratic Sen. Mark Kelly in Arizona.
‘The most vulnerable Republican incumbent’
The Barnes strategy is to define Johnson as a changed man, someone who went to Washington as an insurgent candidate but then enmeshed himself into the Republican Party led by former President Donald Trump.
The attacks will include Johnson’s own admission that the 2017 tax bill passed by Republicans in Washington benefited his own company; his reported role in attempting to push a slate of fake electors after the 2020 election; and his more recent suggestion that Social Security and Medicare, two popular social spending programs, be changed from mandatory to discretionary spending, something experts argue could effectively end the programs.
“What we ought to be doing is we ought to turn everything into discretionary spending so that it’s all evaluated so that we can fix problems or fix programs that are broken that are going to be going bankrupt,” Johnson said earlier this month.
Barnes wasted no time jumping on the comment, using it to argue that Johnson’s personal wealth makes it impossible for him to understand what these programs mean to working class people.
“If he wants be anti-Social Security, that’s on him,” Barnes told CNN, using the Johnson comment to inoculate himself from Republican charges of being too extreme. “That’s much more extreme than wanting working families and people all across Wisconsin have a fair shot.”
With the primary all but decided, Barnes put out an attack ad earlier this month that hit Johnson on outsourcing jobs, using the senator’s defense of a company that took jobs out of Wisconsin.
“Ron Johnson couldn’t be more out of touch with Wisconsin,” the ad says.
Democrats are also preparing to paint Johnson as a candidate who has become a conspiracy theory promoter, including questioning the push to vaccinate people against the coronavirus, calling climate change “bullsh*t,” and suggesting – without any evidence – that the FBI had more inside knowledge than it let on about the US Capitol insurrection on January 6, 2021.
Republican operatives working on Senate campaigns acknowledged the impact some of Johnson’s comments have had on his image. A recent Marquette Law School poll found that 46% of Wisconsin voters viewed him unfavorably, compared to 37% who had a favorable view. But one operative argued that some positive Johnson messaging over the summer, including significant spending by an outside group focused on inflation and a Johnson campaign ad focus on legislation that allowed for more experimental drug treatments, have done some rehabilitation.
“His numbers are moving in the right direction,” the operative said, adding that, no matter what, “it is going to be a close race.”
Democrats see negative views of Johnson as central to their plan of turning the general election into a referendum of the senator.
“Ron Johnson is, without a doubt, the most vulnerable Republican incumbent on the map,” said Amanda Sherman Baity, spokeswoman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.
‘Defined by all these left-wing positions’
The attacks on Barnes center on accusations that he is too extreme for the state, using his time as a community organizer, a state assemblyman from a solidly Democratic district and a “longtime leader” in the Working Families Party against him as he runs for Senate.
The hits include his ties to members of the “Squad,” a group of liberal lawmakers in Congress who are often attacked by Republicans; a photo taken of him holding up an “Abolish ICE” T-shirt; and positions like ending cash bail, supporting the Green New Deal and a host of other views the Johnson campaign believes are too “extreme” for Wisconsin voters. Barnes has said he does not support abolishing the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement but supports “addressing the concerns and issues and challenges that people have so that we can have a fair, comprehensive immigration reform system.”
“All of these things are positions that might get you applause at a Working Families Party rally or get you the endorsement of AOC or Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren, but when you look across the state, that is not where 50+1 of the state sits,” Voelkel said.
One issue that Barnes’ campaign must confront is the fact that polls show that many Wisconsin voters don’t know enough about him to have an opinion – something that can be both helpful and hurtful.
“Barnes is not nearly as known in the state as Johnson,” said Charles Franklin, pollster for the Marquette Law School poll, citing a recent poll that found over 50% of Democratic primary voters didn’t know enough about the lieutenant governor to form an opinion. “That is an opportunity for the Johnson side … to really try to step in and define Barnes.”
And they plan to do just that, with the Johnson campaign and outside groups already gearing up to cast Barnes as out of step with most Wisconsin voters.
“He is going to be defined by all these left-wing positions that he took in the past,” said Jack Pandol, spokesman for Senate Leadership Fund, a Republican super PAC focused on Senate races. “There is a lot that voters are going to be made aware of in the coming months and that will be the first information that some voters are getting about Barnes.”
Barnes responded to these attacks by saying Republicans “tried to say the same thing about Tammy Baldwin,” and she went on to win the state’s other Senate seat in 2012 and reelection in 2018.
“People like Ron Johnson are going to lie about whatever, anything he can think of, to take the heat off his own bad behavior,” he said.
‘We were polarized before it was cool’
The question among experts in Wisconsin is whether, after years of polarization and remarkably tight elections, there are even enough persuadable voters in the state to make the general election anything more than a base-focused race.
Wisconsin has been a swing state for years. When Trump won it in 2016, he was the first Republican to win it since 1984. While Biden won the state back in 2020, the state has long had years of Republican governors, including Scott Walker from 2011 to 2019, and Republicans control both chambers of the state legislature.
“We were polarized before it was cool,” said Joe Zepecki, a Democratic operative in Wisconsin, arguing that the fights around union rights in 2011 and 2012 led to the state being deeply polarized long before the arrival of Donald Trump. “So that shrinking segment of swing voters is kind of the ball game. Yes, the political environment may be bad, but Republicans’ brand is rotten with those voters.”
This is why political watchers like Franklin and others expect a deluge of negative ads in the contest, with both sides running campaigns that “reflect that polarization that we have had for a good 12 years.”
Democrats are confident that if they can turn the race into a referendum on Johnson, there are enough votes who have backed him in the past who are ready for an alternative.
“There is absolutely a world of ticket splitters, a world of persuadable voters and a world of people who might or might turn out,” said Ben Wikler, chair of the Democratic Party of Wisconsin.
Democrats do, however, face a difficult national environment, with President Joe Biden’s poll numbers slumping and voters across the country skeptical of Democratic leadership in Washington.
With this in mind, Barnes argued it would be Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers – not the president – who would have the most direct impact on the contest. Evers himself is up for reelection. While he did not have a primary challenge, he will likely face a tough race against whoever emerges from what has been a tight Republican primary race on Tuesday.
“This is a very Wisconsin focused race,” he said, citing a recent poll that found 48% of Wisconsin voters approved of Evers. “I would say that people know the work that we’ve been doing here in state and this race isn’t going to be determined about what people think about national politics.”