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Four takeaways from Wisconsin Senate debate between Ron Johnson and Mandela Barnes

Wisconsin’s Republican Sen. Ron Johnson and Democratic Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes faced off Thursday in their second debate, clashing over crime and abortion in a series of heated exchanges.

Their Senate debate, less than four weeks before the midterm elections, came as Johnson continues to erode the healthy lead Barnes once enjoyed in the polls. Johnson has led Barnes in recent surveys, worrying Democrats that a prime opportunity to pick up a Senate seat may be slipping away from them.

Unlike in their first debate, which took place last week, Johnson and Barnes had chances to rebut each others’ arguments — setting the night’s confrontation up to be a fiery one.

Throughout the campaign, Johnson has taken aim at Barnes’s position on crime. Barnes made a number of statements at the height of the Black Lives Matter movement that signaled his support for defunding the police — a stance that has become politically radioactive amid a national crime spike.

Barnes has worked to paint himself as an ally to the working class who is running against an incumbent he’s accused of being too extreme to continue representing Wisconsin.

Scrambling to regain momentum, Barnes’s team has reportedly asked former President Barack Obama to pay Wisconsin a visit on behalf of the Democratic Senate candidate.

Here are the top takeaways from Thursday night’s debate:


Sen. Ron Johnson, right, and Democratic Senate candidate Mandela Barnes, left, are introduced during a televised debate Thursday, Oct. 13, 2022, in Milwaukee, Wisconsin

Morry Gash/AP

Stark contrast on immigration

Sparring over the crisis at the border, Barnes accused Johnson of “fear-mongering” rather than putting forward an actionable immigration plan.

Barnes pushed for migrants to receive a path to citizenship, while Johnson demanded a crackdown on border security.

“President Biden came into office, blew open the border, and removed that first necessary step that we must take,” Johnson said.

“You can’t offer amnesty and still have a wide-open border, or you’ll have a flood of millions more people trying to enter this country,” the Republican senator added.

Barnes suggested all the migrants that have poured over the border should get legal status in the United States.

“We should process them immediately into a path to citizenship,” Barnes said.

The chasm between their immigration stances was notably wide given that, on issues from crime to the economy, both candidates have sought to portray themselves as equally concerned and equally tough on voters’ most pressing issues.

Barnes gets personal on crime 

The Democrat invoked his proximity to crime in Milwaukee while vouching for his ability to take on growing fears about crime.

“I have unfortunately lost more friends than I care to count to gun violence, so it is absurd when people say that I’m soft on crime,” Barnes said. “There’s nothing that I’m more deeply passionate about.”

Johnson fired back that Barnes is a skilled “actor” who has been concealing his leftist views on criminal justice. Barnes has previously made statements that signaled support for defunding police departments.

“Falsehoods just seem to roll off his tongue,” Johnson said of Barnes.

Barnes pointed to his support for the American Rescue Plan, the massive stimulus package that Democrats passed last year, and the money in it that has funded police. While it was not at the time billed as a law enforcement boon, Democrats have since noted that it included billions of dollars for cities and states that could also be used on law enforcement.

Barnes advocated harsher gun control measures, like stricter background checks, as a solution to the national crime spike.

While Johnson pushed for “renewed faith, stronger families, and more support for communities” as a foundation for safer streets, he also said law enforcement should crack down more aggressively on violence.

“You have to keep violent criminals in jail, and you have to support law enforcement,” Johnson said.

Barnes hit his Republican opponent for supporting the First Step Act, a Trump-era criminal justice reform bill that received bipartisan support in Congress but also paved the way for the early release of some criminals.

“He is attacking me for the same thing that he is doing,” Barnes said.

Barnes also accused Johnson of being disingenuous in his professed support for law enforcement because, Barnes said, Johnson did not forcefully condemn the Jan. 6 rioters.

For his part, Johnson accused Barnes of fanning the flames of Black Lives Matter riots that destroyed parts of cities across the country.

Abortion takes center stage again

Breaking with some of the most strident voices in his party, Johnson said Wisconsin voters — not Congress or even state legislatures — should decide where in pregnancy to set limits on abortion.

“I proposed a one-time, single-issue referendum to decide at what point does society have the responsibility to protect life, balancing the rights of the mother with the rights of an unborn child,” Johnson said. “In that scenario, I would have one vote.”

Johnson also accused Barnes of holding an “extreme” position by resisting any limits on abortion at any point in pregnancy.

“I respect everyone’s personal beliefs,” Barnes said in his defense. But Barnes accused Johnson of holding a view toward abortion that is “too out of touch.”

Barnes circled back to abortion in his closing arguments, framing the election around an issue that has defined much of his messaging in the final stretch of his race.

“Women’s lives and women’s health are on the line,” Barnes said.


Animosity boils over

Barnes and Johnson at times could hardly contain their negative perceptions of each other, trading personal barbs about each others’ backgrounds and beliefs.

A raucous crowd fed the intense atmosphere with bursts of applause, laughter, and jeers; moderators were forced on multiple occasions to demand that the audience remain silent until the end of the event.

During a segment of the debate in which the candidates were asked to name something they admired about the other, Barnes chose to praise Johnson’s status as a “family man,” highlighting his dedication to his wife and children.

Johnson gave a nod to Barnes’s “good upbringing.”

However, Johnson drew jeers from the crowd when he questioned why, since then, Barnes has “turned against America.”

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