MILWAUKEE — Republican Sen. Ron Johnson and his Democratic challenger, Mandela Barnes, traded attacks and insults in a heated Senate debate Thursday night that focused heavily on crime, gun violence and economic issues.
At various points, both candidates responded to questions from the moderators by lobbing attacks at each other — sometimes wholly unrelated to the topic at hand. The tenor of the insults peaked toward the end of the evening, when Johnson was asked to talk about one thing he admired about his opponent.
“I appreciate the fact that Lieutenant Governor Barnes had loving parents, a schoolteacher, his father worked the third shift, so he had a good upbringing,” Johnson said. “I guess what puzzles me is with that, with that upbringing, why has he turned against America?”
Earlier in the night, Johnson, who is seeking a third term, slammed Barnes as an “actor” who was “making stuff up” and said, “Falsehoods just seem to roll off his tongue.”
He resurfaced attacks over long-settled questions surrounding when Barnes received his college diploma and noted that Barnes, 35, has never held a job in the private sector.
“I’m not sure what he’s ever accomplished,” said Johnson, 67.
Barnes frequently responded to Johnson's attacks on issues like crime and policing by criticizing his record in the Senate.
“He hasn’t done a single thing for us. He’s had 12 years to show up for work and Wisconsinites,” Barnes said.
Barnes also went after Johnson's business record, saying Johnson — who often refers to his family’s plastics business as evidence that he has experience creating jobs — married into that position.
“Senator Johnson has taken a whole lot of credit for his business-in-law,” Barnes said.
During a discussion on police reform, Johnson said the “problem with the whole defund movement, which he’s been a big supporter of, is that it dispirits law enforcement.”
Barnes hit back by reiterating an attack he launched during the first debate, blasting Johnson’s loyalty to law enforcement as “not real” because he downplayed the Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol.
“No police officers in this country were more dispirited than the ones who were present at the United States Capitol on January 6,” Barnes said.
At one point, when the moderators introduced their questions about how the candidates would address gun violence by bringing up a 12-year-old girl who was killed this week when a stray bullet hit her as she was helping her mother unload groceries, Barnes used the moment to hit Johnson.
“The sad reality is that these are not unique stories,” Barnes said. “The even sadder reality is we have politicians who say that there’s nothing that can be done, and it’s because they choose to do nothing."
The candidates also sparred over Social Security, immigration, foreign policy, inflation and abortion.
Thursday’s acidic debate came just days after a new poll found Johnson leading Barnes.
Marquette Law School’s latest poll, released Wednesday, suggested Johnson was ahead of Barnes among likely voters by 6 percentage points — 52% to 46%. One percent of respondents said they would vote for neither candidate, and 1% said they were undecided.
The school’s previous poll, from September, showed a much tighter race, with Johnson leading Barnes by 49% to 48%, well within its margin of error.