The showdown in Milwaukee — the first of two televised debates — came just a month before the Nov. 8 election in a race that could help determine which party controls the Senate for the next two years.
Early on, the two candidates sparred over how best to address rising crime, an issue Republicans nationwide have prioritized along with inflation in the lead-up to the midterms.
The most heated exchange in what was largely a civil debate occurred when Johnson, who is seeking a third term, repeatedly accused Barnes of supporting the “defund the police” movement on the political left.
“The first thing you do is you fund law enforcement, and unfortunately, the lieutenant governor has not done that,” Johnson said at the event hosted by the Wisconsin Broadcast Association. “He has a record of wanting to defund the police, and I know he doesn’t necessarily say that word, but he has a long history of being supported by people that are leading that effort to defund,” he continued.
Johnson then tried to tie his opponent to progressive Rep. Cori Bush of Missouri — who has explicitly pushed for defunding the police — by saying that Bush, along with Barnes, was “using code words” like “talking about reallocating bloated police budgets.”
Barnes hit back, saying that Johnson had no credibility in talking about defending law enforcement because he had downplayed the Jan. 6 riot.
“When we talk about respect for law enforcement, let’s talk about the 140 officers he left behind because of an insurrection he supported,” Barnes said.
At another point early in the hour-long debate, the two candidates were asked for their positions on bail reform.
Johnson and outside groups have used an onslaught of ads in recent weeks to hit Barnes on the issue, with frequent mentions of a man who plowed his car through a Christmas parade in Waukesha last year, killing six people and injuring dozens more. Darrell Brooks, who was charged in the incident, was arrested days before the attack on domestic assault charges but freed after posting a $1,000 bail, a sum that has drawn criticism for being too low.
Barnes said Friday he supported changes to the cash bail system but that Johnson had “mischaracterized” his position in the ads. Under his proposed plan, Barnes said, “dangerous people don’t get to buy their way out of prison.”
“Under my plan, the perpetrator” in the Waukesha attack “would not have been able to get out if he paid $1,000 or $100,000,” Barnes said.
The evening’s heavy focus on crime came amid a barrage of negative ads in the final weeks of the midterms from Republicans in battleground states who have hammered Democrats on the issue. The strategy, as NBC News reported this week, appears to be particularly effective in states like Wisconsin and Pennsylvania.
The two candidates are locked in a tight race in a state that President Joe Biden won in 2020 by less than 1 percentage point. RealClearPolitics’ latest polling average suggests Johnson is up by 3 percentage points, though Johnson, who trailed by wider margins over the summer, has made gains in recent weeks amid the heavy focus on crime. The nonpartisan Cook Political Report has rated the race a toss-up.
Another divisive topic that came up during Friday's debate was abortion, an issue that Democrats are hoping will energize their base in November following the Supreme Court's reversal of Roe v. Wade in June. That ruling meant Wisconsin's near-total abortion ban from 1849 went back into effect over the summer.
Barnes attacked Johnson for having previously said that if women didn’t like Wisconsin's abortion law, they could move to another state.
“I can’t think of more callous out of touch or extreme position to take,” Barnes said, adding that if elected he would vote to codify Roe v. Wade.
He referred to several situations where young women and girls — including a 10-year-old from Ohio who had to travel out of state for an abortion after she was raped — had faced extraordinary challenges in obtaining abortion care after Roe was overturned.
“That’s Ron Johnson’s America,” Barnes said.
Johnson responded with a mischaracterization of Barnes’s position by saying his opponent “would be allowing no restrictions whatsoever.” He also said 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. But this past week, the Republican-controlled state Legislature blocked initial efforts to get that question on the ballot.
Johnson, responding to attacks that have been made against him by Barnes and groups aligned with Democrats, said Friday he supported the right for people to obtain birth control, and in vitro fertilization.
Barnes and Johnson will meet Thursday for their second and final debate before Election Day.