When they met on a debate stage for the second and final time on Thursday, Republican Sen. Ron Johnson and Democratic challenger Mandela Barnes had the same goal: make their opponent a wholly unacceptable choice to voters.
The Wisconsin Senate race, which has featured months of attack ads, got even uglier at Marquette University in Milwaukee. The two candidates accused each other of being extremists on abortion, not supporting law enforcement and traveling on the taxpayer dime.
The tone of the evening was even nasty when the two candidates were asked to name something they found admirable about their rivals.
Barnes said Johnson has “proven to be a family man.” Johnson first said “I appreciate the fact that Lt. Gov. Barnes had loving parents,” and then added, “What puzzles me about that is with that upbringing, why has he turned against America?”
His response prompted booing from the crowd.
Johnson is widely seen as the most vulnerable Republican senator facing reelection in November. With his persistently low favorability ratings, Johnson and his GOP allies have had little choice but to try to drag down Barnes to his popularity level. They have assailed him with negative ads calling him soft on crime, while Democrats have painted Johnson as an out-of-touch plutocrat serving his wealthy donors.
Despite getting off to a rocky start, Johnson has led the polls in recent weeks, leading to growing concern among state and national Democrats about the race. Still, the contest remains close, with Johnson ahead by about three percentage points in polling averages.
Johnson and Barnes were allowed to give 30-second rebuttals when they were named, leading to a fiery, fast-paced exchange. The audience at times was so loud in cheering — and jeering — of the candidates that the moderators were forced to ask them to quiet down.
The two politicians were asked about inflation, abortion, Social Security and a number of other hotly debated topics. On the issue of crime, Johnson said Barnes “has been a big supporter” of the movement to defund police and criticized him over “violent” prisoners being paroled by Gov. Tony Evers’ administration.
Barnes responded by saying that “no police officers in this country were more dispirited than the ones who were present at the United States capitol on January 6.” He also accused Johnson of hypocrisy, saying that he had voted for the First Step Act that expanded early-release programs for inmates.
While Barnes signaled support for reducing funding for law enforcement in the past, he has said during the campaign that he does not back defunding police.
Johnson and Barnes also took shots at each other over their career experiences. Johnson said “Barnes claims to be part of the working class, but I haven’t really found evidence that he actually had a real job in the private sector.” Barnes said Johnson, who has long touted the fact that he owned a plastics business as evidence that he knows how to create jobs, merely married into the company: “Senator Johnson has taken a whole lot of credit for his business-in-law.”
Amid inflation and high gas prices, Johnson sought to frame the race as a referendum on the White House, asking, “Are you better off or worse off since Democrats took control?” Barnes, meanwhile, argued that Johnson was a threat to Social Security and democracy, pointing to his chief of staff’s ties to a fake electors scheme.
Johnson has denied involvement in that effort. He initially planned to object to the 2020 election results, but ultimately voted to certify them.
“He tried to send fake electors to the vice president, said his involvement lasted a matter of seconds, as if you get to use the five-second rule for election subversion,” said Barnes.