MADISON, Wis. – Republican Sen. Ron Johnson and his Democratic challenger Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes stuck to their scripts — and their time limits — as they met for a debate Friday evening in a hotly contested race that could determine party control of the U.S. Senate.
In battleground Wisconsin, it was a welcome chance for both candidates to clarify their positions on a variety of issues, and though they disagreed on most subjects, their comments were similar to those they’ve made on the campaign trail. Here are the key takeaways:
Inflation is one of the issues most felt by voters this midterm, with noticeable increases in the prices of everyday expenses like groceries, rent and utilities. It’s also among the top issues Wisconsin voters are concerned about, recent polling has shown.
Johnson was hesitant to commit to supporting increases in the minimum wage, saying he would “possibly consider it.” The incumbent also blamed Democrats for inflation, saying jobs and the economy were better under former President Donald Trump.
Barnes reiterated his support for a $15 minimum wage as well as an approach to job creation that includes technical and trade education. Johnson questioned several references Barnes made to his working-class background, saying he was unaware of what experience the lieutenant governor has in the private sector other than his parents’ jobs as a schoolteacher and a factory worker.
Barnes, who has made support for abortion rights central to his campaign, said he would “absolutely vote to codify Roe v. Wade” into federal law as a senator.
Johnson again voiced support for a statewide referendum on abortion — an option that seems unlikely after the state Legislature quickly ended a special session called by Democratic Gov. Tony Evers earlier this week to consider allowing ballot measures. Barnes accused Johnson of running from his record of supporting anti-abortion legislation, saying the senator knows a referendum won’t happen.
A 173-year-old law bans abortions in Wisconsin except to save the life of the mother. Doctors stopped providing abortions after the Supreme Court handed down its decision overturning Roe v. Wade in June. Polling has shown that a majority of people in Wisconsin support abortion rights.
A flurry of attack ads have from Johnson and other Republicans have branded Barnes as “dangerous” and displayed the lieutenant governor against footage of violent crime. Such ads are a likely reason the lead Barnes held over Johnson in midsummer has since eroded. Barnes supports ending cash bail, but he was clear Friday night that his plan would not allow dangerous offenders out of jail.
“Senator Johnson may not have encountered a problem he can’t buy his way out of, but that’s not the case for the majority of people in Wisconsin,” said Barnes, sneaking a jab in at the incumbent, who is also a multimillionaire and former businessman.
Johnson hit back by highlighting Barnes’ statements on police funding and accusing him of inciting riots during protests against racism in 2020. “He says it pains him to see fully funded police budgets,” said Johnson. Barnes doesn’t support defunding the police, but he has expressed support for redirecting police funding towards alternative community safety programs.
The candidates also addressed gun control. “If gun control were the solution, it would’ve already been solved,” said Johnson, who pinned the blame for gun violence on a lack of social and religious values. Barnes, a Milwaukee native, took the opportunity to decry gun violence and talk about his personal connections to victims.
“The climate has always changed, always will change,” said Johnson, denying that climate change is an issue. The senator also said the federal government should worry less about carbon emissions and more about “real pollution” like the state’s ongoing issues with a group of chemicals known as PFAS.
Barnes accused Johnson of protecting special interests in the fossil fuel industry and referenced his conversations with local farmers. Rural voters are a key group in Wisconsin that Barnes has been struggling to gain the support of.
When speaking about renewable energy, Johnson said wind and solar energy “make our grid very unreliable” and instead suggested, “If you’re concerned about climate change, you should be supporting nuclear power.”
JAN. 6 ATTACK
The incumbent senator has downplayed the attack on the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, saying it “didn’t seem like an insurrection to me.” On Friday, Johnson also downplayed his role in attempting to deliver a slate of false electors to former Vice President Mike Pence after the 2020 election.
“From my standpoint, this is a non-issue,” Johnson said, claiming he had no knowledge of an alternate slate of electors. Both candidates said they believed Pence did the right thing while certifying the results of the 2020 election.
Harm Venhuizen is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues. Follow Venhuizen on Twitter.