Barnes was clearly eager to attack Johnson – perhaps an acknowledgment that the Democratic lieutenant governor is under more pressure with new polls showing him falling behind the GOP incumbent in the pivotal matchup. Republicans are trying to defend this seat in a state President Joe Biden won in 2020 as they look to flip the closely divided Senate in November.
A Marquette University Law School poll released Wednesday found 52% of likely voters backing Johnson and 46% backing Barnes, which was a growing advantage for Johnson after the same poll in September had found no clear leader.
Republicans believe their nonstop focus on crime – with millions in attack ads being run against Barnes – is the reason for the polling shift, and that strategy was on full display in Thursday’s debate, with Johnson hitting Barnes over the issue from the outset.
Barnes attempted to rebut the attacks by personalizing the issue – noting he lost friends to crime growing up in Milwaukee – and questioning Johnson’s focus on crime by noting his minimization of the January 6, 2021, attack on the US Capitol.
Here are four takeaways from the debate.
Johnson makes crime the focus
Johnson followed the strategy of the outside GOP groups that have spent millions hitting Barnes.
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“One thing you have to do is you have to keep violent criminals in jail, and you have to support law enforcement,” Johnson said, suggesting Barnes and Wisconsin Democrats do not.
The two-term senator added later: “The problem with the whole defund movement, which he has been a big supporter of, is it dispirits law enforcement.”
Initially, Barnes – who has argued during the campaign that he does not want to defund the police – responded by personalizing the crime issue, saying, “It is absurd to say I am soft on crime, or I am not serious about issues, because there is nothing, I am more deeply passionate about.”
Barnes responds with personal stories about crime
But the most direct response on crime came when Barnes invoked the January 6 insurrection, something Johnson has minimized since it occurred.
“No police officers in this country were more dispirited than the ones who were present at the United States Capitol Hill on January 6,” Barnes said, noting that scores of officers were injured. “So this talk about support for law enforcement, it’s not real, it’s not true, because he decided to play politics when the person he didn’t want to win the presidential election.”
Barnes previewed this attack earlier in the day when his campaign launched a new digital ad hitting Johnson over revelations from the House select committee earlier this year that the Wisconsin Republican had tried to pass then-Vice President Mike Pence a false slate of electors during the certification of the 2020 election results on January 6. Johnson claimed at the first debate that he did not know what he was being asked to hand to Pence.
Johnson took issue with the attack on Thursday: “And I immediately and forcefully and repeatedly condemned the violence on January 6.”
In the months following the insurrection, Johnson cast doubt on reports surrounding the riot, telling a conservative radio host last year, “Those were people that love this country, that truly respect law enforcement, would never do anything to break the law,” and later telling Fox News, “The fact of the matter is even calling it insurrection, it wasn’t.”
Candidates spar over business experience and qualifications
Johnson wasted no time arguing he is best suited for the job because of his business experience, touting his “first taxpaying job” and his family’s business.
Barnes took issue with this argument, especially given Johnson’s business experience stems from his wife’s family’s plastics company, PACUR.
Johnson’s “biggest achievement in business was saying I do,” Barnes said. “He married into his business. He didn’t start that from the ground up.”
Shortly after that barb, Johnson took issue with Barnes’ personal story, especially how he often refers to how his mother was a teacher and his father worked third shift.
“I know others have said their fathers worked third shift,” Johnson said. “But I actually worked third shift.”
Later in the debate, after Johnson again touted his business record, Barnes quipped, “Senator Johnson is taking a whole lot of credit for his business in law.”
Asked what he admires in Barnes, Johnson says he ‘turned against America’
Moderators ended the question-and-answer portion by asking the candidates to name something they admired in their opponent.
Barnes went first and took the question seriously, complimenting Johnson on being a family man.
“The senator has proven to be a family man and that is admirable,” Barnes said.
Johnson largely ignored the prompt. He commended Barnes’ “good upbringing” and his parents, but quickly pivoted to saying Barnes had “turned against America.” That answer elicited groans and boos from the audience.
Johnson shrugged after finishing.
This story has been updated with additional information.