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Democrats attack Ron Johnson over tax breaks and abortion in salvo of primary day ads

The ads attempt to paint Johnson as an out-of-touch politician who has spent so much time in Washington that he’s dishing out tax breaks to his donors and himself.
Image: Ron Johnson
Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., pictured in February, is running for a third term in November.Bill Clark / CQ Roll Call via AP file

It may be primary day in Wisconsin, but Democrats aiming to protect their majority in the Senate are jumping into the general election arena.

They're rolling out new TV and digital ads Tuesday attacking two-term Republican Sen. Ron Johnson before the final votes are even cast for his expected general election opponent, Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes.

The ads, provided to NBC News, are the first in the Wisconsin general election funded by the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC), which has already reserved $3 million in the race for the fall. But that's a mere drop in the bucket compared with what’s expected to be spent in the fight over Wisconsin’s Senate seat in a year when the chamber’s balance is at stake. 

The out-of-the-gate attacks offer a glimpse into the strategy Democrats are employing in their attempt to derail Johnson’s quest for a third term. In them, Democrats attempt to paint Johnson as an out-of-touch politician who has spent so much time in Washington that he's dishing out tax breaks to his donors and himself.

In the TV ad, a narrator takes on the tone of a salesman hawking goods as he accuses Johnson of helping his donors benefit from a tax bill.  

“Tired of Washington politicians not working for you? We’ve got a solution — with three easy payments of $1 million, Ron Johnson will work for you! Just ask these billionaires!" the narrator says. "They donated a fortune to Johnson and he delivered a $215 million tax break for them. That’s right, $215 million. Johnson even threw in a tax break for himself. Don’t miss this opportunity, call now.”

The tax break is a reference to a ProPublica investigation in 2021 that reported Johnson had held out voting yes on the 2017 Republican tax break bill until a more generous deduction was allowed for business owners. The report, citing tax records of some of Johnson’s donors, stated the move potentially saved billionaire donors tens of millions of dollars — and in some cases, much more.

Earlier this year, Johnson told supporters plainly that both his business, a plastics enterprise he helped found in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, and his donors likely benefited from the bill, but so did 90 percent of businesses. 

The DSCC is running two new digital ads, one that also discusses the tax break issues and another that takes on abortion in which a narrator says, “He doesn’t understand your family, or care about you.”

Johnson has been under attack on abortion since the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade protections in June. Last month, he issued a statement on his website laying out his positions. 

It’s just a taste of what’s to come in the contest, in which Republicans, too, are expected to unleash a campaign of negative hits on Barnes. Republicans insist that Barnes, despite his statewide name recognition and grassroots following, is the most vulnerable of the Democrats to emerge from the primary field, arguing he is the easiest to paint as too liberal for battleground Wisconsin. 

Lt. Gov. of Wisconsin and Democratic Senate candidate Mandela Barnes speaks at a rally outside in Madison on July 23, 2022.
Wisconsin Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes, a Democratic Senate candidate, at a rally outside Madison on July 23.Sara Stathas for The Washington Post / via Getty Images file

Barnes’ path was unexpectedly cleared two weeks ago when three opponents dropped out of the race in one week, including Alex Lasry, the free-spending Milwaukee Bucks executive, who presented the biggest threat to Barnes both in campaign spending and in the polls. 

Last month, NBC News reported that Lasry had revamped $600,000 worth of campaign ads he had already bought promoting himself before he dropped out and turned them into anti-Johnson ads rather than take them down.