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Ron Johnson defeats Mandela Barnes in Wisconsin Senate race, NBC News projects

Johnson built a small lead in most polls over Barnes — though within the margin of error — after he began relentlessly focusing on crime, and his victory suggests the strategy worked. 

GOP Sen. Ron Johnson has won re-election to a third term in Wisconsin, NBC News projects, narrowly defeating Democrat Mandela Barnes.

“The votes are in,” Johnson said in an email statement that was released before NBC News and other news outlets made the call. “There is no path mathematically for Lt. Gov. Barnes to overcome his 27,374 vote deficit. This race is over.”

Democrats had initially been hopeful that they could oust Johnson, who was increasingly defined by headlines over his statements on issues such as abortion, his perpetuation of dubious and unproven Covid treatments, and his ties to the Jan. 6 riot and fake elector plot to help throw the 2020 election to then-President Donald Trump. 

But a successful rebrand, as well as unrelenting attacks against Barnes on crime and criminal justice issues, appeared to help Johnson's standing among voters.

Barnes made an early bet to run as a progressive and largely did not move to the center. His campaign focused heavily on promises to protect abortion rights and Social Security benefits.

In the final weeks, Johnson focused on crime in particular, unleashing a barrage of negative ads that highlighted rising crime rates and singling out things Barnes had said about criminal justice reform. Some ads focused on positions Barnes had taken or statements he had made — such as his support for ending cash bail and saying that “reducing prison populations is now sexy” — while others made misleading claims about his tenure as the state's lieutenant governor, like accusing “his administration” of having paroled hundreds of violent offenders.

Johnson had built a small lead in most polls over Barnes — though within the margin of error — after he began his relentless focus on crime, and his victory suggests the strategy was a success. 

Barnes focused much of his closing message hammering Johnson over his opposition to abortion rights an issue Democrats across the country had hoped would energize their base in the midterms following the Supreme Court’s reversal of Roe v. Wade in June. That ruling meant Wisconsin’s near-total abortion ban from 1849 went into effect over the summer.

Johnson has said he supports an abortion ban that includes exceptions for rape, incest and the life of the mother, but has not called for the Legislature to change the state’s 1849 law. As a senator, Johnson co-sponsored the Life at Conception Act enshrining a “right to life or the right to life of each born and preborn human person” in the Constitution and allowing equal protections at “the moment of fertilization.” However, he also said during the campaign that he would support a recently offered proposal to create a “single-issue referendum” that would allow Wisconsin voters to decide on the future of abortion rights in the state. (Last month, the Republican-controlled state Legislature blocked initial efforts to get that question on the ballot.)

Barnes had also attempted to undercut Johnson’s claims that he supports law enforcement by repeatedly pointing out that he downplayed the Jan. 6 riot, in which police were overrun and in some cases brutally beaten by a pro-Trump mob.