MADISON, Wis. – Far from shying from his contrarian reputation, Wisconsin Republican Sen. Ron Johnson is leaning into controversy as he runs for his third term.
Johnson has called for the end of guaranteed money for Medicare and Social Security, two popular programs that American politicians usually steer clear from. He’s trafficked in conspiracy theories about the 2020 election and dabbled in pseudoscience around the coronavirus.
His Democratic challenger, Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes, has gone in a safer direction, cultivating an image as a nonthreatening defender of the middle class with TV ads showing him hitting baseballs, delivering pizzas to children and shopping for groceries.
Their race is one of a handful around the country that could decide control of the Senate next year, and the only one with an incumbent Republican seeking reelection in a state carried by President Joe Biden. It's also shaping up as the kind of razor-close finish that's become common in Wisconsin, where Donald Trump carried the state by fewer than 23,000 votes in 2016 and then lost to Biden by about the same margin two years ago.
Polls suggest that a Barnes edge in midsummer, likely propelled by his emergence as key Democratic rivals dropped out right before the state’s primary election, has evaporated under a barrage of attack ads from Johnson and his allies. A Marquette University Law School poll in mid-September had the race within the margin of error, with Barnes’ unfavorable ratings increasing by 10 percentage points from a month earlier.
“Ron Johnson isn’t doing anything to try and move his favorables up,” said Alex Lasry, a Milwaukee Bucks executive who was Barnes' first main rival to leave the race and throw support to Barnes. “I think Ron Johnson’s campaign knows the voters don’t like him. What Johnson’s trying to do is drag everyone into the mud."
Keith Gilkes, a GOP strategist who ran former Republican Gov. Scott Walker's first campaign, said Johnson is simply defining Barnes and moving independents into his own camp.
“Now the pressure is back on Barnes," Gilkes said. "How is he going to respond?”
Barnes, 35, and Johnson, 67, couldn't be more different.
Johnson, a former plastics manufacturer, is a millionaire several times over. Barnes, the state's lieutenant governor and potentially the state's first Black senator, has championed his modest upbringing in Milwaukee as the child of a public school teacher and a United Auto Workers member.
Barnes' messaging has tracked with that background, with talk of returning manufacturing to the state, protecting union jobs and helping small farmers — a play for rural voters who have slipped away from Democrats in recent years.
He has sometimes struggled financially as an adult, too — something he sought to turn to his advantage when attacked for paying his property taxes late. In one of his newest TV ads, Barnes says: “There were times I was getting by on peanut butter sandwiches. And that’s why I support a tax cut for the middle class.”
Johnson and his allies have accused him of speaking in platitudes rather than in detail about his plans, avoiding unscripted moments in front of reporters and hiding from voters.
When Barnes agreed to a single televised debate next month, Johnson — who had offered to do two more — pounced: “I can't force the other guy out of hiding." Barnes later agreed to a second debate.
Many of the attacks against Barnes from Johnson and Republicans have focused on violent crime and public safety, issues that polls show are concerns for voters this year. When Barnes had to remove the endorsement of two law enforcement officers from his website — the campaign said one was a clerical error, and the other one reportedly wasn't aware his name would be made public — Johnson capitalized by releasing endorsements from a majority of Wisconsin sheriffs, including Democrats.
Barnes’ backers have said that ads attacking him on crime, including one from the National Republican Senatorial Committee citing his support for ending cash bail and calling him “dangerous,” are racist. The spot features footage of a car plowing through a Christmas parade in Waukesha, Wisconsin, last year along with images of the Black man charged with killing six people and injuring dozens of others.
Johnson, when asked about the ads in a conference call with reporters on Tuesday, said they were not racist.
“This is right out of the Democrat playbook," Johnson said. "They have no problem playing the race card at the drop of a hat, basically. It’s very divisive. I wish they wouldn't do it. There’s nothing wrong with pointing out the record of your opponent. We’re just pointing out the truth.”
Barnes has talked about moving funding away from police departments to social service agencies, but he says he does not support defunding police. He rolled out a new ad last week that featured a retired Racine police sergeant declaring his trust in Barnes. And his campaign has highlighted appearances around the state to argue that he's running an “open and accessible” campaign.
When he's not attacking Barnes, Johnson is talking about issues that politicians facing an election typically avoid.
He has repeatedly called for removing guaranteed funding for Medicare and Social Security, saying it's the only way to keep them viable. Those comments caught Biden's attention, with the president repeatedly called Johnson out by name, including at a White House event Tuesday, for wanting “to put Social Security and Medicare on the chopping block every year.”
“If Congress doesn’t vote to keep it, goodbye,” Biden said Tuesday.
Johnson has also embraced conspiracy theories about the 2020 election, even though Biden's win has been upheld by numerous courts, withstood partisan and independent investigations and weathered partial recounts in Wisconsin.
Johnson also dismissed concerns about climate change, said that he would have been more fearful during the Jan. 6, 2021, riots if the U.S. Capitol invaders had been Black Lives Matter protesters, and advocated for unproven and untested alternative treatments for COVID-19, saying mouthwash could be one way to fight the virus.
“Ron Johnson has never been a barrel of of sunshine, right?" said Mark Graul, a Republican strategist who ran Republican presidential candidate George W. Bush's 2004 state campaign. “Him taking positions that are not exactly polling through the roof is what makes him Ron Johnson. ... He's not out here wanting to be loved."
Wisconsin's close races typically turn on whether Democratic turnout in the urban centers of Milwaukee and Madison counter Republican strengths in rural areas and the Milwaukee suburbs. It also matters which candidate can better tap into the issues most important to independents, said Scott Spector, who ran Democratic Sen. Tammy Baldwin's successful 2018 campaign.
That includes abortion — perhaps the one area where Johnson is showing caution given polls showing a strong majority back it being legal. Johnson recently said that questions about Wisconsin's abortion ban should be decided by a statewide vote, but when Democratic Gov. Tony Evers proposed a way to do that, Johnson balked.
Gilkes, the Republican strategist, said Barnes needs to “rise to the moment” in the campaign's final weeks and pivot from defending himself to being more aggressive in taking on Johnson.
“He needs to fix the messaging, get focused and get out there more to ultimately be successful,” Gilkes said. “That flow is going against Mandela. He’s being overwhelmed by it right now.”