Five takeaways from the first Barnes-Johnson debate in Wisconsin

Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) and Democratic candidate Mandela Barnes shared the stage for the first of two scheduled debates on Friday as the candidates simultaneously tried to paint each other as extremist while going on defense on issues like crime and Social Security.

Barnes, the state lieutenant governor who has branded himself as a populist in the race, fielded attacks over the issue of crime and defunding the police. At the same time, Johnson was forced to answer questions about his previous comments on Social Security and his ties to the Jan. 6, 2021, Capitol riot.

Here are five takeaways from the Wisconsin Senate debate.

Barnes seeks to deflect attacks on crime

Throughout the campaign, Barnes has been forced to defend himself against an onslaught of GOP attacks over crime and law enforcement. Friday night was no exception, as Johnson used the debate to paint the Democrat as a supporter of defunding the police.

“He has a record of wanting to defund the police, and I know he doesn’t necessarily say that word,” Johnson said. “But he has a long history of being supported by people that are leading the effort to defund. He uses code words like [Rep.] Cory Bush said, talk about ‘reallocate,’ ‘overbloated police budgets.’ He says it pains him to see fully funded police budgets.”

Barnes for his part struck a measured tone on the issue, arguing that the way to prevent crime was to adequately fund schools and make sure there was enough jobs, adding that his administration had invested millions of dollars for public safety, law enforcement and crime prevention efforts. 

A CNN KFile review published on Friday noted that while Barnes has argued that he is against abolishing U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) or defunding the police, past interviews and social media activity have suggested otherwise, including instances of him like posts endorsing getting rid of ICE.

Johnson put on defense over Jan. 6

The Republican senator found himself repeatedly on the defensive over his alleged involvement in Jan. 6, including reports of his office’s participation in a fake elector scheme that was first brought up during a hearing held by the House select committee investigating the Capitol riot.

During a hearing this summer, the committee showed a text exchange between an aide to former Vice President Mike Pence and a person identified as an aide to Johnson, who told the Pence official that Johnson wanted to hand over an alternative slate of electors from Wisconsin and Michigan.

During the debate, Johnson reiterated that he had no involvement in such a scheme. 

“Let me clear things up here. I had no idea — when I got a call from the lawyer from the president United States to deliver something to the vice president, did I have a staff member that could help out with that? I had no idea what it was. And the fact of the matter was, nothing was delivered. The whole episode took less than an hour, and I wasn’t even involved. So again, I had no knowledge of an alternate slate of electors,” he argued. 

Barnes also used Jan. 6 to hit back at allegations that he didn’t support law enforcement, invoking “the 140 officers that [Johnson] left behind [at the Capitol] because of an insurrection that he supported.”

Johnson for his part said he “condemned” the Jan. 6 riot and, asked whether Pence did the right thing on Jan. 6, said: “Yes. President Biden is now president of the United States.”

Candidates try to paint each other as extreme on abortion

Both candidates tried to portray the other as out-of-touch on the issue of abortion. While Johnson suggested that Barnes supported no limits to the medical procedure, the Democrat hit his opponent over his praise of the Supreme Court decision to overturn Roe v. Wade.

“He celebrated the Dobbs decision,” Barnes said of Johnson. “And he said that if women don’t like the laws of their state, like the 1849 criminal abortion ban we have here, he said they can move. I can’t think of a more callous, out-of-touch or extreme position to take.”

“… The most extreme position here would be no limits on abortion whatsoever, allowing an abortion right to the moment of birth, which is what the lieutenant governor supports,” Johnson shot back at one point during the debate.

The issue of abortion has galvanized voters after the Roe v. Wade ruling, which impacted a number of states that had “trigger” laws on the books. Abortion is practically illegal in Wisconsin given a 1849 law that was dormant until the overturning of Roe.

Social Security comments come back to haunt Johnson

The senator was also forced to go on defense over his previous comments on Social Security and Medicare, in which he suggested in August that they should be annually approved. Democrats at the time seized on his comments, claiming the senator wanted to ax the federal programs. 

“Let me make myself very clear: I want to save Social Security. I want to save Medicare. The greatest threat to Social Security and Medicare is the completely out-of-control deficit spending and our growing debt,” he said during the debate.

“What I’ve been saying is we should be looking at all spending so we can prioritize, and Social Security, Medicare would be at the top [of] priority list. I’ve never, ever said I would cut it or put it in the chopping block. That is a false attack,” he added. 

Barnes repeatedly accused Johnson of referring to Social Security as a “Ponzi scheme” and likening it to “candy;” Johnson denied the latter point.

Barnes invokes personal stories

The lieutenant governor repeatedly invoked anecdotes from his life and about his family as he sought to paint himself as someone who could relate to the common struggles of Wisconsinites.  

Barnes referenced his grandfather in several of his answers, contrasting the opportunities his relative was afforded while living in Milwaukee and how deindustrialization and the offshoring of jobs have hit communities hard in the state since.

“My granddad moved here after World War II. He got a job as an union steelworker and that’s the story of a whole lot of Black men in the city of Milwaukee. And again, when those opportunities dried up, there was nothing really that came in to fill the void. We saw, again, those rises in crime which also led to rises [in] incarceration, so many other devastating — so many other devastating results because of deindustrialization, because of offshoring,” Barnes claimed. 

Additionally, he spoke about his cousin, Dennis, who decided not to go to college and pursue a career as an electrician while Barnes spoke about the issue of rising college tuition costs. And he noted that he had lost several people in his life to gun violence when discussing the scourge of crime in the state.

Tags Mandela Barnes Mandela Barnes Ron Johnson Ron Johnson Wisconsin Senate race

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