GOP Sen. Ron Johnson, left, and Democratic Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes are facing off in a debate on Thursday.
CNN  — 

Mandela Barnes, the Democrat taking on Republican Sen. Ron Johnson in Wisconsin’s Senate race, on Thursday faces what could be his last clear shot at rebutting the avalanche of GOP attacks on crime and police funding that have taken a months-long toll on his campaign.

Barnes and Johnson are set to meet for their second and final debate Thursday night – hours after the House committee investigating the January 6, 2021, attack on the US Capitol holds a hearing that is expected to function as its closing argument ahead of the November midterm elections.

Barnes is highlighting Johnson’s actions on that day, seeking to cast him as an unreliable and hypocritical messenger on what it means to support police officers. Johnson, who played a role in trying to push “fake electors” for then-President Donald Trump before the start of the congressional certification of the 2020 electoral votes, has repeatedly downplayed the attack on the Capitol, saying it was not an “armed insurrection,” including as recently as earlier this month.

Johnson and Republican outside spending groups have hammered Barnes, the Wisconsin lieutenant governor, throughout the fall in television advertisements, at events and in their first debate on crime – echoing a theme the GOP has made a core component of its closing message in Senate races across the map. Those attacks have coincided with Johnson rebounding from a summer slump in the polls less than four weeks from Election Day.

During a campaign event Tuesday in Milwaukee where the Wisconsin Fraternal Order of Police and the West Allis Professional Police Association endorsed the two-term Republican senator, Johnson said that Barnes has shown “far greater sympathy for the criminal or criminals versus law enforcement or the victims.” He pointed to Barnes’ history of statements in support of decreasing or redirecting police funding.

“The dispiriting nature of attempting to cut or use the code words of ‘reallocate,’ ‘over bloated budgets,’ – my opponent says that it pains him to see a fully funded police budget. I mean, that type of rhetoric,” Johnson said, “Those types of policies are very dispiriting for police.”

Barnes, who says he does not support defunding the police, is attempting to shift the debate over crime away from his previous comments by targeting Johnson’s actions around the attack on the Capitol after President Joe Biden defeated former President Donald Trump in the 2020 presidential election.

Ahead of Thursday’s debate, Barnes plans to hold a virtual news conference with retired Army Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, who served on the National Security Council and emerged as a star witness against Trump during the his first impeachment. Barnes’ campaign said the event would serve to “hold Ron Johnson accountable for his attempt to send a fake slate of electors to the Vice President.”

Johnson’s role in trying to put forward the slate of electors who had not been certified by any state legislature was uncovered in June by the House select committee investigating the events around the insurrection. “I was aware that we got this package and that somebody wanted us to deliver it, so we reached out to Pence’s office,” Johnson told CNN at the time.

In his first debate with Barnes, Johnson said he did not know what he was being asked to hand Pence.

“I had no idea when I got a call from the lawyers for the president of the United States to deliver something to the vice president, did I have a staffer who could help out with that – I had no idea what it was,” Johnson said. “I wasn’t even involved. I had no knowledge of an alternate state of electors.”

His comment was part of perhaps the most memorable clash in their first debate last week. Barnes said that Johnson didn’t have any concern for the “140 officers that were injured in the January 6 insurrection.”

“One officer was stabbed with a metal stake. Another crushed between a revolving door. Another hit in the head with a fire extinguisher,” Barnes said. “Let’s talk about the 140 officers that he left behind because of an insurrection that he supported.”

Johnson said of the insurrection that he “immediately and forcefully and have repeatedly condemned it and condemned it strongly.”

Likely voters move toward Johnson, poll finds

Barnes consistently led polls of the Senate race over the summer. But that edge has evaporated, more recent polls show – a change that has coincided with Republicans spending millions on TV ads focused on crime.

A Marquette University Law School poll of Wisconsin released Wednesday showed movement among likely voters toward Johnson. The Republican led Barnes by 6 percentage points, 52% to 46%, among likely voters, the poll found. That’s a jump in Johnson’s favor from the neck-and-neck race the same poll found, with Johnson at 49% to Barnes’ 48%, in September.

The poll’s results among likely voters are significantly more favorable to the GOP than are its results among all registered voters, suggesting substantial uncertainty hinging on Democrats’ ability to turn out less motivated supporters. By contrast, in Marquette’s latest results among all registered voters, Barnes and Johnson are tied at 47% in the Senate race.

Other recent polls of the race have found likely voters deadlocked. In a CBS News/YouGov poll released Sunday, Johnson took 50% to Barnes’ 49% among likely voters.

The Marquette poll found that inflation is a top issue in Wisconsin, with 68% of registered voters saying they are very concerned about it. Smaller majorities are also very concerned about public schools (60%), gun violence (60%), abortion policy (56%), crime (56%) and an “accurate vote count” (52%).

‘It’s not just one thing’

But it’s crime that Republican strategists say has been central to Johnson’s rebound in the race.

The attacks have taken place against the backdrop of rising violent crime figures, including a 70% increase in Wisconsin’s homicide rate from 2019 to 2021, according to the state’s Department of Justice. Republicans have also highlighted those convicted of violent crimes who have been paroled by the Wisconsin Parole Commission, an independent agency whose chairperson is appointed by the governor.

“They don’t have an answer,” Brian Schimming, a Republican strategist in Wisconsin, said of Barnes’ campaign. “With Mandela Barnes, it’s not just one thing. It’s not anecdotal. There are three, four, five issues there that are not playing with an electorate that’s pretty concerned about crime right now, and not just if they’re in Milwaukee.”

In the month of September, 61% of the nearly $9 million that Johnson and GOP groups spent on TV ads in the Wisconsin Senate race was behind ads focused on crime, according to data from the firm AdImpact.

That share has dropped to 30% so far in October, but nine of the 14 ads that Republican groups have aired so far have been focused on crime.

It has forced Democrats to respond. Barnes and Democratic groups have focused 40% of their TV ad spending so far in October on crime, with ads rebutting the GOP groups.

The Republican attacks have focused on Barnes’ efforts as a state lawmaker to end cash bail, as well as a 2020 interview with PBS Wisconsin – weeks after the police killing of George Floyd in neighboring Minnesota – in which Barnes suggested that funding should be redirected from police budgets to other social services.

“We need to invest more in neighborhood services and programming for our residents, for our communities on the front end,” he said then. “Where will that money come from? Well, it can come from over-bloated budgets in police departments.”

He did, however, also stress in that same interview that he did not want police budgets completely done away with, saying, “The more money we invest in opportunity for people, the less money we have to spend on prisons.”

One Johnson campaign ad shows video of Barnes saying that “reducing prison population is now sexy.” A narrator in the ad highlights Democratic Gov. Tony Evers’ administration’s efforts to reduce the state’s prison population and says: “That’s not sexy. It’s terrifying. And as a mother, I don’t want Mandela Barnes anywhere near the Senate, from defunding our police to releasing predators.”

Another Johnson spot features the sheriffs of Ozaukee and Waukesha counties, both huge sources of Republican votes in the Milwaukee suburbs.

“Barnes wants to defund our police,” Waukesha County Sheriff Eric Severson says in the ad.

“Mandela Barnes’ policies are a threat to your family,” Ozaukee County Sheriff Jim Johnson says.

Barnes’ campaign has responded with ads of its own, including one in which Barnes says of GOP ads claiming he supports defunding the police, “That’s a lie.”

“Mandela doesn’t want to defund the police,” a retired Racine Police Department sergeant says in another Barnes spot. “He’s very supportive of law enforcement and I know his objective is to make every community in the state of Wisconsin better.”

CNN’s Veronica Stracqualursi, David Wright and Ariel Edwards-Levy contributed to this report.