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All You Need To Know About Wisconsin’s Senate Race, Through TV Ads

In Wisconsin’s Senate race, Republican incumbent Sen. Ron Johnson is facing off against Democratic Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes. Their TV ads reveal a lot about the issues at play, how each candidates is perceived and the overall state of the race.


Nathaniel Rakich: Democrats went into 2022 with high hopes of winning the U.S. Senate race in Wisconsin. The party nominated a high-profile candidate in Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes, and Republican incumbent Ron Johnson has gotten some bad headlines about his vaccine skepticism and involvement in the plot to overturn the 2020 election.

As recently as a couple of months ago, Barnes even led in the FiveThirtyEight polling average of this race, by as much as 4 percentage points. But his lead evaporated in late September.

What changed in September? It could be that Republican TV ads attacking Barnes started to take their toll. According to HuffPost, Republicans outspent Democrats by $1.6 million during the second and third weeks of September. And there was one issue in particular that their ads focused on: crime.

Narrator in National Republican Senatorial Committee ad: What kind of Democrat is Mandela Barnes? He’s a defund-the-police Democrat.

Narrator in Johnson ad: They want to defund our police.

Rep. Cori Bush in Johnson ad: Defunding the police has to happen.

Narrator in Johnson ad: Mandela Barnes would join their Squad. Barnes wanted to abolish ICE, open our borders and release violent felons without bail. Mandela Barnes: dangerously liberal on crime.

Rakich: These ads got a lot of criticism for fearmongering based on Barnes’s race. Barnes, like Rep. Cori Bush, who you just saw in that ad, is Black, and these ads seemed designed to “other” him in this heavily white state. One ad even outright called him “different.”

But the ads seemed to be effective. Barnes even felt the need to respond to them directly.

Barnes in Barnes ad: Look, we knew the other side would make up lies about me to scare you. Now they’re claiming I want to defund the police and abolish ICE. That’s a lie.

Rakich: And Barnes also released an ad featuring a retired police sergeant vouching for him on public safety.

Rick in Barnes ad: I worked on the force for 30 years. I’ve seen plenty of politicians. But Mandela — he’s the real deal. Mandela doesn’t want to defund the police. He’s very supportive of law enforcement.

Rakich: Interestingly, Everytown for Gun Safety, a pro-Barnes outside group, has tried to turn the issue of crime around on Johnson — attacking him for his votes against police funding and gun control.

Narrator in Everytown ad: Mass shootings, school shootings and violent crime are on the rise. And Ron Johnson is making things worse. He abandoned law enforcement, voting against funding for the police.

Rakich: But it may not have fully worked. According to a recent Marquette Law School poll, likely Wisconsin voters who were very concerned about gun violence said they supported Barnes over Johnson — but voters who said they were very concerned about crime said they supported Johnson over Barnes by an even wider margin.

After all these ads aired and the dust settled, Johnson is the one who now leads Barnes in the polls. According to the FiveThirtyEight forecast, the Republican now has about a 3-in-4 chance of winning.

Campaign ads don’t always work, but they very well may have in Wisconsin.

Nathaniel Rakich is a senior editor and senior elections analyst at FiveThirtyEight.

Anna Rothschild was FiveThirtyEight’s senior producer for video.


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