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In key battlegrounds, GOP onslaught of crime ads tightens Senate races

The strategy, while not new, appears to be resonating particularly in Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, alarming some Wisconsin Democrats.
Ron Johnson, Mandela Barnes, Mehmet Oz and John Fetterman.
Ron Johnson, Mandela Barnes, Mehmet Oz and John Fetterman.AP/Getty Images

MILWAUKEE — Republicans have unleashed a barrage of negative ads in the final weeks of the midterms that hammer Democrats on crime.

In at least two states, the strategy appears to be taking hold.

Recent polling suggests that after GOP Senate candidates zeroed in on crime in Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, the trajectory of the races shifted. In Wisconsin in particular, the negative ads have relentlessly targeted Democratic Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes, who is challenging Sen. Ron Johnson.

“They’ve all got the same crib notes: Attack Democrats on crime,” said political science professor Charles Franklin, the director of the Marquette University Law School poll.

“It’s an effective issue here and elsewhere because, simply put, homicide rates are up in most urban centers,” he added, a trend that includes Milwaukee, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh.

Although Republicans have long turned to a playbook of attacking Democrats for not being tough enough on crime, pollsters like Franklin and strategists interviewed by NBC News said the strategy seems particularly effective this year amid rising crime rates across the U.S. and elevated voter concerns about the issue. Some Democrats have argued that Republicans are deploying scare tactics and racist dog whistles on purpose to mislead voters about their rivals.

But some Democrats have also grown alarmed that the attacks are resonating. Several Wisconsin Democrats said in interviews that Barnes knew the attacks were coming and are concerned the campaign hasn’t done more to keep the issue from becoming a defining aspect of the race.

“It’s been frustrating,” said one of Barnes’ primary opponents, Tom Nelson.

Nelson, along with two other Democrats, dropped out of the race early to clear a path for Barnes, who consistently polled ahead of him and other Democrats. “It’s probably frustrating for the other candidates, as well, because we invested so much time, so much money in beating Ron Johnson. If we didn’t have that set of values, if we didn’t have that shared goal of beating Ron Johnson, we wouldn’t have bailed out.”

Another Wisconsin Democrat who asked not to be named for fear of political retribution shared Nelson’s concerns.

“Why has it taken so long to figure out an answer to this crime messaging?” the Democrat said. “Why does it feel like Ron Johnson had like a month to hammer away at Mandela unanswered?”

Many of the pro-Johnson ads have hammered Barnes on the issue of cash bail, calling him a “dangerous Democrat” who supports ending it and making frequent mention of the person who plowed his car through a Christmas parade in Waukesha last year, killing six people and injuring dozens more. The suspect, Darrell Brooks, had been arrested days before the attack on domestic assault charges, but he was free after having posted $1,000 bail, a sum that has drawn criticism for being too low.

Brooks’ trial began this week, putting the issue back in the local news for the foreseeable future.

“These messages work because it’s not just a commercial. [Voters] see the problem every time they turn on the TV,” said a Wisconsin Republican operative with knowledge of Johnson’s campaign strategy.

During the Democratic primary, Barnes said he supported ending cash bail, and Johnson’s ads have noted that Barnes, as a state Assembly member, sponsored legislation they claim would have let criminals like Brooks post “dangerously low” bail. Barnes has said his bill would have required judges to hold defendants in custody if “clear and convincing evidence” existed that they were dangers to the community. Independent fact-checkers have said it’s “mostly true” that Barnes’ bill would have prevented Brooks from being released on bail. Advocates for bail reform have said cash bail discriminates against poor people and people of color, and many plans to reform it, including Barnes’ years-old proposal, target eliminating the practice for nonviolent crimes.

Another Republican ad claims Barnes “stands with ‘defund the police,’” while still others have tied him to “the squad,” a group of progressive lawmakers in Congress, many of whom support the “defund the police” movement, while showcasing an old photo of him holding up an “Abolish ICE” T-shirt. (The Barnes campaign made it clear early in the primary that Barnes didn’t support either movement.)

Yet another ad features an old clip of Barnes saying that “reducing prison populations is now sexy” before he claims that “his administration” paroled hundreds of violent offenders — a misleading accusation that Tim Michels, the Republican nominee for governor, is also wielding against his opponent, Gov. Tony Evers, one of the most vulnerable Democratic incumbents in the country.

Some of Barnes' allies, however, said that Johnson's allies have used racist dog whistles to describe Barnes, who is Black, in ads and that they sent campaign mailers that appeared to have darkened his skin. That's an accusation that Republicans rejected.

Calena Roberts, a Milwaukee-based organizer with the Service Employees International Union, said the nonstop ads about crime exploit Black neighborhoods for political gain.

"We live in a very racist state. There are people out here who thrive on that kind of nonsense that he’s spewing," Roberts, who is Black, said of Johnson. "We have to be mindful and diligent and be able to push back."

She also lamented that Republicans have gotten away with lobbing attacks without outlining their own plans to combat crime.

“I want to know what he did for the last two terms and what his plan is now," she said of Johnson. "If he were to win, what would he do to curb crime?”

Barnes has put out a series of statements and ads that hit back against the attacks. In one, Barnes slams them as "lies about me meant to scare you." Like other Democrats, Barnes has also hit Johnson and other Republicans for being apologists for those involved in the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol. In recent days, however, Barnes has pivoted to attack Johnson on the issue of abortion rights — a move strategists say is designed to appeal to the Democratic base. This week, Barnes launched a “Ron against Roe” tour of the state and began running his first negative attack ad of the race, targeting Johnson’s stance on abortion access.

Barnes campaign spokesperson Maddy McDaniel said the race “remains neck and neck" even though Johnson and outside groups have spent millions of dollars on a "smear campaign." She said the campaign, freshly "armed" with a $20 million fundraising haul in the third quarter, was "taking the fight to Ron Johnson," particularly over his "dangerous" record on abortion.

In Pennsylvania, Republican Senate nominee Mehmet Oz has hammered his opponent, Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, over his clemency efforts as part of aggressive soft-on-crime attacks.

A series of ads run by Oz and outside groups supporting his campaign have highlighted specific cases Fetterman oversaw as head of the state pardons board, noting that pardons and commutations have soared since he took office in 2019 and painting him as being out of the political mainstream on criminal justice.

Polls in both states suggest the strategy is working. 

Barnes had led Johnson in a series of polls through August, including a Marquette Law School survey showing him up by 7 percentage points.

But now, after the Republican blitz of crime ads, Johnson is ahead.

RealClearPolitics’ latest polling average shows Johnson up by 3 percentage points in the state, which President Joe Biden won in 2020 by less than 1 percentage point. (The same trend in polling has occurred in the race for governor, with Michels now narrowly leading Evers, despite Evers’ having held a consistent polling lead over him over the summer.)

A Fox News poll released last week found that 44% of Wisconsin voters were “extremely” or “very” concerned that Barnes’ views were “too extreme” in late September — higher than the level of respondents who said they felt the same way about Johnson. Notably, the proportion of voters who said they were “extremely” or “very” concerned about Barnes’ being “too extreme” jumped by 14 percentage points from the organization’s poll a month previously in August, suggesting the GOP strategy of painting Barnes as outside the political mainstream on issues like crime was working.

“The cratering support Democrats are seeing in competitive races around the country is the result of embracing the intellectually lazy argument of abolishing everything they don’t like,” said Chris Pack, a Republican strategist who works on Senate races and previously worked for Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell’s Senate Leadership Fund. “That includes wanting to abolish incarceration of criminals along with abolishing support for law enforcement personnel.”

The Senate race in Pennsylvania has also tightened significantly. 

Whereas polling in late summer showed Fetterman up by double digits, RealClearPolitics’ latest polling average shows him up now by just 4.3 percentage points in the state, within most surveys’ margins of error. 

Furthermore, a Suffolk/USA Today poll released Tuesday found that Fetterman’s unfavorable rating had spiked by 17 points, to 44%, from the organization’s last survey of the race in June.

Barney Keller, a spokesperson for Oz’s campaign, said the polling and the nonpartisan Cook Political Report’s rating change this week, moving the race from leaning Democratic to toss-up, proved the strategy was working.

The ads, Keller said, “have been incredibly effective.”

Fetterman, like Barnes, has hit back against the attacks on crime, running an ad featuring a county sheriff praising him on the issue.

Campaign spokesperson Joe Calvello said the campaign aggressively promoted Fetterman as a crime-fighting mayor in Braddock, a town near Pittsburgh, starting during his primary, in anticipation of Republican attempts later on to paint him as soft on crime.

“We weren’t going to sit around and wait for Republicans to make this an issue … because we have a very strong record here,” Calvello said. He added that despite the onslaught, Fetterman was still leading in polls.

“They threw everything that they had at us,” he said. “And we’re still winning.”

Meanwhile, Republicans are betting that crime messaging will pay dividends for them in other battleground states, too.

Herschel Walker and Don Bolduc, the Republican nominees for the Senate in Georgia and New Hampshire, have attacked their Democratic opponents, Sens. Raphael Warnock and Maggie Hassan, on the issue in recent weeks. 

In the tight race for governor in Oregon, both Republican nominee Christine Drazan and independent candidate Betsy Johnson have hit Democrat Tina Kotek on rising crime in the state. The Cook Political Report has rated the race in the Democratic stronghold — which hasn’t elected a Republican governor in 40 years — a toss-up.

Conversely, Rep. Val Demings, D-Fla., has leaned hard into her background as the former police chief of Orlando in ads against her opponent, Republican Sen. Marco Rubio. Polls show that race has tightened somewhat in recent weeks, although Rubio maintains a solid lead and the Cook Political Report continues to rate it lean Republican.

In the Nevada race for governor, despite rising crime rates that strategists in the state said could make the issue a vulnerability for the Republican nominee, Clark County Sheriff Joe Lombardo, Lombardo has tied his crime messaging to issues of school safety.

Strategists said the messaging has helped build an overarching theme against multiple candidates on crime.

“They’re tough,” said Brandon Scholz, a Wisconsin-based Republican strategist, referring to the barrage of ads. “And they’re having an effect.”

But Alex Lasry, who dropped out of the Wisconsin Democratic primary race to back Barnes, said Democrats in his state were worrying even as the race in Wisconsin is within the margin of error in most polls.

“Everyone who is flipping out — this is still a tied race," Lasry said. "Calm the F down, and let’s go win."

Adam Edelman reported from New York, Natasha Korecki from Wisconsin and Henry J. Gomez from Ohio.