MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Republican U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson and Democratic challenger Mandela Barnes got personal in their final debate Thursday before the Nov. 8 election, with each candidate attacking the other as being a liar, radical and out of touch with the average Wisconsin voter.
Johnson, who is seeking a third term, and Barnes, the lieutenant governor, are locked in a tight race that could determine which party controls the Senate. The debate in Milwaukee came a day after a Marquette University Law School poll showed Johnson with an apparent lead, marking a steady increase for the incumbent since Barnes won the Democratic primary in August.
Here are the key debate takeaways:
With just over three weeks until the election, Barnes went on the attack against Johnson, saying he has “done nothing” while in office other than line his own pockets and those of his wealthy donors who benefited from former President Donald Trump’s tax cut that Johnson voted for.
Barnes even attacked Johnson’s career as a plastics manufacturer at a company started by his wife’s father.
“He married into his business, he didn’t start that from the ground up,” Barnes said. He derided it as Johnson’s “business in law.”
Johnson said he was proud of his accomplishments, citing a right to try law that allows for patients to use experimental treatments, and the Joseph Project, an effort Johnson started to connect poor and disadvantaged people in Milwaukee with jobs.
Johnson said Barnes “has no accomplishments whatsoever. All he has is lies and distortion. … Has the lieutenant governor ever created a job?”
Johnson called Barnes “a performer, he’s an actor.”
Barnes has touted his middle-class upbringing, with his father working third shift and his mother being a public schoolteacher.
“I know others say their fathers worked third shift, but I actually worked third shift,” Johnson said, mentioning his first job as a 15-year-old dishwasher.
ABUSE OF TAXPAYER MONEY
Johnson accused Barnes of abusing taxpayer money through the $608,000 cost of his security detail his first three years in office.
“The senator should be so audacious,” Barnes responded, referring to flights to a Florida vacation home paid for by taxpayers and the tax cut bill Johnson helped pass.
Federal records show Johnson has been reimbursed for 19 flights from Fort Myers, Florida, to Washington, D.C., between 2013 and May 2021, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported. The trips cost taxpayers somewhere between $5,418 and $18,781.
“Working-class families are footing the bill for millionaire lifestyles and it has to stop,” Barnes said.
The Senate Ethics Committee rejected a complaint filed by Democrats about the flights, saying Johnson did not violate federal law or Senate rules or standards of conduct.
Johnson defended saying that Social Security and Medicare funding should no longer be guaranteed and should instead compete with other government programs. Johnson said he wants to do that to save the entitlement programs, which he argues are not sustainable under the current system.
“I want to save Social Security. I want to save Medicare,” Johnson said. “I never said I wanted to cut or put Social Security on the chopping block.”
Barnes wasn’t having it.
“He’s coming for your retirement,” Barnes said.
Johnson again attacked Barnes for his past support of reducing funding for police departments and ending cash bail. A central argument of Johnson’s campaign is portraying Barnes as soft on crime.
Barnes accused Johnson of being a hypocrite for saying he’s soft on crime while the senator has downplayed violence during the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.
“This talk about support for law enforcement, it’s not real. It’s not true,” Barnes said.
He said Johnson has not done enough to denounce the Jan. 6 attack.
“It has to be said that he called those folks patriots. He called them tourists,” Barnes said. “The people who were beating up police officers in the Capitol.”
Johnson said he has forcefully and repeatedly denounced the attacks. But he didn’t mention that he has also said it “didn’t seem like an insurrection to me” and he would have been more fearful if the U.S. Capitol invaders had been Black Lives Matter protesters.
Johnson repeated his support for a statewide referendum asking voters how late into a pregnancy they would want to allow abortions. Wisconsin law does not allow for such referendums and the Republican-controlled Legislature last month rejected a proposal from Democratic Gov. Tony Evers that would have created a pathway for such a vote.
Johnson wrongly said Thursday that the Legislature was being asked to place on the ballot an up or down vote on codifying Roe v. Wade. That is not what the rejected proposal would have done.