Wisconsin Senate race: Republicans attack Barnes on crime, offering glimpse at shifting midterm message
In Wisconsin, Barnes, in his own ad launched two weeks ago, said Republicans are trying to scare voters, calling the charge that he wants to defund the police “a lie.”
“I’ll make sure our police have the resources and training they need to keep our communities safe and that our communities have the resources to stop crime before it happens,” Barnes says in the spot.
“It’s worse when he’s actually on video talking about defunding the police. It’s a direct tie,” a Republican involved in the Wisconsin Senate race said.
“We need to invest more in neighborhood services and programming for our residents, for our communities on the front end,” he said then. “Where will that money come from? Well, it can come from over-bloated budgets in police departments.”
In an ad launched Monday that used audio from that interview, the National Republican Senatorial Committee, the Senate GOP campaign arm, labeled Barnes “dangerous” and a “defund the police Democrat.”
In other ads, Republicans have highlighted Barnes’ work a decade ago as an organizer for a Milwaukee-based social justice group to cut Wisconsin’s prison population in half, to 11,000 inmates by 2015, and his advocacy for ending cash bail. Barnes has said his proposals to end cash bail would have required judges to hold those charged with crimes in custody if there was clear evidence the defendant was dangerous.
Aiming to rebut the attacks, Barnes’ campaign on Thursday rolled out a list of endorsements from a group of nine current and former police officers and sheriff’s deputies.
“He wants to ensure we have the resources we need to do our job while also going to the root of the issue, to help stop crime before it has a chance to start,” Paul Piotrowski, a retired police sergeant in Stevens Point, Wisconsin, said of Barnes in a statement from the Democrat’s campaign announcing the endorsements.
Reaching suburban voters
Republicans in Wisconsin pointed to crime as an issue that motivates both the party’s base and moderate voters.
“There’s a lot of people concerned about their personal safety — not just in the cities, but in the suburbs around the cities — because crime tends to radiate out of the city into the suburbs and exurbs,” said Brian Schimming, a Republican strategist and former vice chairman of the state GOP. “So it’s not just a core city problem. It’s on a much larger scale, the awareness of it.”
Democrats, however, said they see Republicans’ attacks on Barnes over crime as an effort to motivate the GOP’s base voters, rather than win over what Joe Zepecki, a Democratic strategist in Milwaukee, described as the “vanishingly small group of truly swing voters” that exist in the race’s final weeks.
“This crime and public safety issue is a base motivator for Republicans, so of course, they’re going to keep going into that,” Zepecki said. “But I don’t think crime or public safety is going to be the issue that ultimately determines where those 150,000 to 200,000 swing voters land when they walk in and cast a ballot.”
Zepecki added: “I do really view these crime attacks on Barnes — they may work among Republicans, but I don’t see them being a game changer to that middle part of the electorate to whom this is ultimately going to come down to.”
Longtime swing state
The poll found that 70% of registered voters said they were very concerned about inflation — but crime ranked second, with 61% saying they were very concerned about it.
Both candidates have near-unanimous support from their own parties’ voters, the poll found. But the biggest swing was among likely independent voters, who backed Barnes by 15 points in August but favored Johnson by 2 points in September.
More registered voters viewed Johnson unfavorably (47%) than favorably (39%), the poll showed. Barnes’ numbers were better, with 33% saying they saw him favorably compared with 22% who saw him unfavorably. But 25% said they have not heard enough about Barnes, suggesting that Johnson and Republicans still have room to attempt to define him in the eyes of many voters.
Tom Otto, a 60-year-old retiree in Baraboo, north of Madison, is among those potential swing voters. He said he voted for Trump and Johnson in 2016, and then the Democratic ticket of Gov. Tony Evers and lieutenant governor Barnes in 2018 and Biden in 2020.
“I usually don’t make my decision until I’m standing in line, getting ready to vote,” Otto said.
But while he said crime is a concern, inflation is at the front of his mind now, he said.
“We have to do something with this, as far as I’m concerned, with people not having enough money to even buy food,” he said. “I mean, it’s a big deal in this country — people, I don’t think realize how bad it is. You know, you come to the farmers market, looks wonderful, but how many people can afford it?”