The two squared off Friday night in Milwaukee as the Democratic nominee and Wisconsin’s sitting lieutenant governor also held Johnson to account on contentious issues like abortion, Social Security and Medicare.
But when the debate turned to issues involving crime — a topic that Republicans have increasingly used for fearmongering purposes — Barnes employed a strategic approach that expertly upended Johnson’s GOP-led talking points about Democrats purportedly being soft on crime. He simply pointed to the Capitol riots and how Republicans readily downplayed and dismissed undeniably illegal and violent activity by pro-Trump vigilantes in the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021.
Johnson, known in part for racist comments that show contempt for Black people, has notably tried to justify the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol that left at least five people dead.
During the debate, Johnson tried to label Barnes, and Democrats by proxy, as supporting policies that have contributed to “a huge problem with skyrocketing crime.” Johnson said that as a result, “we’re not keeping criminals in jail.”
But how Johnson defines the word “criminals” is up for debate itself as Barnes capitalized on the senator’s continued indifference to the very illegal Capitol riots and the violence against responding members of law enforcement.
It’s partially why Barnes referred to Johnson as “one of the worst parts of a broken system.”
Barnes, who turns 36 in December, reminded debate viewers about how the election-denying Johnson tried to pull a fast one with fake electors in an effort to keep Donald Trump president in 2020 – a federal crime to which Johnson admitted – but he also upended Republicans’ pro-police narrative as evidenced by the Capitol riots.
“I supported bail reform,” Barnes responded to Johnson’s accusations during the debate. “Under my plan, dangerous people don’t get to buy their way out of prison,” Barnes added, alluding to Johnson’s wealth, part of which was boosted by a stake he has in a company linked to businesses in China, which currently has strained relations with the U.S. The Open Secrets website covering campaign finance put Johnson’s net worth at more than $39 million in 2018.
“Now, Senator Johnson may not have encountered a problem he could not buy his way out of, but that’s not a reality for the majority of the people in this state,” Barnes added.
Later, Barnes pounced when Johnson said he was unaware of and “not impacted” by the rioting going on in the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.
“[Johnson] may not have noticed that an insurrection was going on because he called those people ‘patriots,’” Barnes said. He called them ‘tourists.’ These are the folks who he supported.”
On that same topic, Barnes also said: “Let’s talk about the 140 officers he left behind during an insurrection he supported. This is an act that he supported.”
Following the debate, Barnes tweeted a clip of the exchange that was accompanied by a message effectively calling Johnson a hypocrite when it comes to his campaign’s stance on crime.
“I won’t be lectured about crime by the guy who CONTINUES to defend the insurrectionists that injured 140 police officers,” Barnes wrote.
After the hourlong debate concluded, the organization working to support Democrats running for U.S. senate quickly declared Barnes the winner.
“Mandela Barnes won tonight’s debate by clearly prosecuting the case against Ron Johnson, who’s self-serving agenda has been a disaster for Wisconsinites,” Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee spokesperson Amanda Sherman-Baity said in a statement emailed to NewsOne. “Barnes held Johnson’s feet to the fire over his dangerous plans to ban abortion nationwide and put Social Security and Medicare on the chopping block. Wisconsinites face a clear choice between Johnson who has spent his time in D.C. putting himself and his wealthy donors first at the expense of working families, and Mandela Barnes who has a record of standing up for working people.”
The GOP has been ramping up its rhetoric on crime as Election Day approaches.
But on Friday night, Barnes employed an approach that is championed by a gun control group that has spent a considerable amount of money on ads in Wisconsin to help dispel Republicans’ “artificial” notion that Democrats are soft on crime.
“We can reset this narrative and neutralize the GOP’s, what I would call, artificial advantage on the issue,” Charlie Kelly, a senior political advisor to Everytown for Gun Safety Victory Fund, told the Associated Press this week.
Friday’s debate took place as a new poll showed Barnes leading Johnson in the tight race.
Barnes and Johnson are scheduled to face each other again in their second debate on Thursday.
Barnes announced his candidacy for U.S. Senate last year and invited voters to help him “change the game.”
Hailing from Milwaukee’s 53206 zip code — often referenced as the most incarcerated and impoverished zip code in the country — Barnes has highlighted his blue-collar roots as fueling his candidacy as a champion of the people of Wisconsin.
The second Black person to be elected to statewide office, Barnes served as a member of the Wisconsin legislature from 2013 to 2017. He later ran for lieutenant governor, helping Evers to defeat former Gov. Scott Walker in 2018.