Tom Nelson can hardly believe it.
In just a matter of two months, Democrats went from expecting to knock off the unpopular GOP incumbent, US Sen. Ron Johnson, to seeing their party’s nominee, Wisconsin Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes, scrambling to catch up.
Already, the finger pointing has begun.
“The national party did him a grave disservice by not closing the gap, by not being a stopgap measure in August and September to hit Johnson hard on good, effective negative ads, at the same time building up Mandela,” Nelson, a local county executive from central Wisconsin and former Senate Democratic candidate, told CNN. “The national party has totally failed us, and so it’s gonna come down to Wisconsin Democrats.”
Of possibly seeing Johnson, 67, win a third Senate race, Nelson said, “People are just hitting their heads against the wall. How do we let this happen?”
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Over the summer, Barnes’ top Democratic opponents dropped out, clearing the way for him to win the primary and fully shift to attacking Johnson. Yet Barnes’ slim lead collapsed in September, when Republicans spent nearly $6 million more than Democrats on the air slamming Barnes primarily on crime. In August, a Marquette Law School poll of likely voters showed Barnes leading Johnson 52-45. By early October, those numbers reversed.
What’s happening in Wisconsin resembles Democratic struggles across the country. They’ve seen their leads evaporate in key House and Senate races as outside money floods in to hammer Democrats over crime and inflation, while they’ve tried to rail against Republicans over their opposition to abortion rights. In several key battleground states – Georgia, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Nevada, North Carolina, Ohio and Florida – GOP candidates and groups spent roughly $25 million more than their Democratic counterparts on air in September alone, according to data from AdImpact, which tracks ad spending.
In states like Wisconsin, the outside money has forced Barnes to go on defense, and air several ads accusing Johnson of lying in the attack ads.
Many of his supporters believe that is not enough.
“Oh, I’m terrified,” said Mary Hildebrand, a voter here in this small northern Wisconsin town. “His campaign seems to be faltering,” she said of Barnes.
In an interview, Barnes dismissed the polls showing him down in the race. Democrats are heartened that the same Marquette pollster tested a larger universe of voters – registered voters – and found the race there essentially a dead heat.
“Polls go up, polls go down,” Barnes, 35, told CNN. “The reality is we’re showing up, talking to everybody.”
“All they can do is try to distort my record and try to make people live in fear,” he added, rejecting the notion that he was caught flat-footed. “But that’s not what this is about. It’s about making sure that people know better is possible.”
Democrats have already reserved $2 million more in ads than Republicans in the final three weeks of the campaign, according to AdImpact. And officials with Democratic outside groups – namely the Senate Majority PAC and Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee – reject the criticism that their ad campaigns have been ineffective.
“Wisconsin is one of the top Senate battlegrounds because voters in the state are tired of Ron Johnson looking out for himself at their expense,” said Amanda Sherman Baity, a spokesperson for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, which has ramped up its spending since the August 9 primary and has spent over $4.8 million in the race so far, including a $1 million ad buy coordinated with the Barnes campaign.
Senate Majority PAC, the super PAC aligned with Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer, and its affiliated group have been on the air since May, having dropped $22 million in the state, with $6.2 million planned in the final three weeks.
“We have just under three weeks left to defeat Johnson and defend our Democratic Senate majority—that’s what we’re focusing on, and we strongly encourage our fellow Democrats to do the same,” said Senate Majority PAC spokesperson Veronica Yoo.
On the air, Republicans have had a near singular focus, hammering Barnes for violent crime and for previously advocating for shifting police funding to other social services in the community. Outside groups like Wisconsin Truth PAC and the Senate Leadership Fund, the super PAC aligned with Senate GOP Leader Mitch McConnell, have said he supports “defunding” the police, a slogan he rejects.
Of the GOP attacks, Marilyn Norden, a voter in northern Wisconsin, said: “They seem to be working. Yes, I’m very concerned.”
After a speech at a packed diner here in Oneida County, Barnes defended himself, telling reporters that the issue is personal for him since he’s lost friends to gun violence. He said he wants “fully funded” schools and “good-paying jobs,” and to prevent “dangerous weapons” from getting in the hands of criminals. He said that Johnson “is only playing politics with our safety.”
“Nobody is asking about interviews from six years ago, people are asking why Ron Johnson continues to leave them behind,” he told CNN when asked about recent reports he spoke out against police brutality on RT, a Kremlin-backed network, in 2015 and 2016.
Barnes is attempting to be the first Black person to become a US senator from Wisconsin, and his supporters see a racial component to the attacks.
“These ads have gone from crime ads to just blatant racism,” Nelson said. “This is something that Wisconsin has never seen before.”
Barnes’ attacks have mostly focused on the accusations that Johnson enriched himself while in office, an accusation the GOP senator rejects, and over his support for banning abortion.
Asked why he hasn’t focused on other issues during his paid media campaign – namely Johnson’s downplaying of the January 6, 2021, attack on the US Capitol, and sowing doubt over the Covid-19 vaccine – Barnes said there was plenty of controversy to choose from.
“We actually have focused on January 6th to an extent, but the reality is there are many different fronts to address Ron Johnson’s failures,” Barnes told CNN. “And it’s important for us to highlight where Ron Johnson has failed people right at home and at the dinner table.”
Johnson has remained behind closed doors this week. His campaign refused to disclose his campaign schedule this week or make him available for an interview. But he has appeared on Fox this week, including pleading for donations during an appearance on Sean Hannity’s show Tuesday night. The Barnes and Johnson campaigns have each spent over $23 million so far on the race, but the lieutenant governor outraised the senator last quarter, $19.5 million to $11.6 million.
“I think so many people think this is won,” Johnson said to Hannity. “My fundraising is weaker. I rely on your audience.”
There are signs that Democrats are broadening their attacks. The Senate Majority PAC and End Citizens United launched Wednesday a new ad featuring a retired Madison police officer calling out Johnson for describing the January 6 attack on the Capitol as largely a “peaceful protest.” On Tuesday, SMP aired another ad attacking Johnson on China, for working to sweeten a tax break for companies connected to his donors and himself, and for his anti-abortion rights position.
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At a speech here on Tuesday, Barnes attacked Johnson for not supporting federal legislation to codify same-sex marriage, for at one point facilitating an effort to contest the 2020 election and for later downplaying the January 6 riot.
Johnson’s supporters in the ultimate swing state have twice sent him to the Senate, drawn to his brash attitude, businessman background and conservative values. The Wisconsin Republican has also benefited from running in election cycles when the political environment favored his party, first in the 2010 tea party wave, then in 2016 as Donald Trump stunned the world and narrowly took Wisconsin on his way to the White House, and now in 2022, when inflation and a deteriorating economy threatens Democrats’ control of Congress.
Andy Loduha, Republican party chairman here in Oneida County, said Barnes doesn’t understand the economic issues that have come to the forefront of the race.
“I think abortion is another example of how the Democrats don’t really have anything to run on,” said Loduha. “They’re running on emotional issues like abortion, but they don’t want to try to touch inflation, crime, drugs.”
Wisconsin Democratic strategist Joe Zepecki is frustrated with the Democratic bedwetting, even though he said recognized the “tough national political environment.”
“I just think there’s too many Democrats wringing their hands and thinking this thing is like gone or on its way to being gone,” Zepecki said. “Guys, run through the tape. You’re right there, despite the f***ing onslaught that Barnes had to weather … And he’s still right there.”
Asked if she believed Barnes would win, Wisconsin Treasurer Sarah Godlewski, who ran against Barnes before dropping out, told CNN, “If there’s one thing we know about Wisconsin, it’s we live by close elections, and we never press our luck.”
To get there, Barnes will be campaigning next week in Milwaukee with former President Barack Obama, in a bid to energize voters. But there are no plans yet to campaign with the current President, Joe Biden, whose unpopularity remains a liability here.
Asked if Biden should run for reelection, Barnes told CNN: “We’ll cross that bridge when we get there. We still gotta get through November 8, 2022.”
CNN’s Morgan Rimmer, Ted Barrett and David Wright contributed to this report.