Two things are certain about the fall contest between Republican U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson and his Democratic challenger, Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes.
It's going to be expensive and it's going to be loaded with negative advertising.
There's a lot on the line — the road for control of the U.S. Senate goes right through Wisconsin. In this cycle, Johnson is the only sitting Republican senator running for re-election in a state that President Joe Biden won in 2020.
Outside groups have already poured millions of dollars into the race, and plenty more is yet to come. Including spending from the candidates, who are likely to each raise tens of millions of dollars, the race could top $200 million in ad expenditures.
"This race is going to get nasty on both sides," said Jessica Taylor, Senate and Governors Editor for The Cook Political Report with Amy Walter.
The Cook Political Report rates the race as a toss-up.
"Wisconsin is just the most divided state politically in the country right now," Taylor said.
There's little head-to-head polling so far. A Marquette University Law School Poll from June showed Barnes with a 2-point lead over Johnson in a projected fall match-up, well within the survey's margin of error.
Significantly, just 37% of those surveyed viewed Johnson favorably, while 46% viewed him unfavorably and 16% couldn't offer an opinion.
Johnson has been the subject of relentless TV ad attacks for more than a year. Barnes emerged from the Democratic primary unscathed, with none of the top contenders attempting to take him down.
That dynamic will now change.
Johnson has already taken off the gloves, telling broadcaster Joe Giganti in a recent interview that Democratic power brokers "selected the most radical left candidate of all the Democrats in the state of Wisconsin."
Johnson derided Barnes' support from progressive U.S. Sens. Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren and New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, "plus all the defund police groups as well," a reference to Barnes receiving the endorsement of five national groups that have called for defunding the police.
"Other than being a political activist and a career politician, what are his qualifications for the job?" Johnson said.
For his part, Barnes said recently that the race is about "retiring a senator who has left working people behind for more than a decade," and noted that while the senator doubled "his personal wealth" others across the state and country have experienced financial difficulties.
Barnes accused Johnson of working on behalf of big corporations and big donors while refusing "to lift a finger to help struggling people in this state during the pandemic." And he lambasted Johnson for his longstanding opposition to the Affordable Care Act and for votes against the CHIPS Act and a $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill.
The back and forth is likely just a preview of what's to come. Both sides see ample "targets of opportunity" as they try to define the race.
On the issues, Republicans are expected to push back hard against Barnes' advocacy for a Green New Deal "that works for Wisconsin" and Medicare for All. They'll also zero in on his support to end cash bail nationally.
Taylor said Republicans will dig into Barnes on policing and immigration, even as Barnes has sought to distance himself from defund police and abolish ICE movements.
"They're going to use the photo of him with U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota and the photo of him with the 'Abolish Ice' T-shirt. I'd fully expect that to be in a Republican ad," she said.
Mark Graul, a Republican strategist, said Barnes is vulnerable on those issues.
"I think he'll have a real tough challenge," Graul said. "Does that mean it's not going to be a close race? Absolutely, it will sure be a close race."
Johnson will also absorb blows. Democrats plan to spend the next three months litigating his record. They'll also focus on his support for the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision overturning Roe v. Wade, which halted abortion in the state as an 1849 ban took effect.
"There are hits against Johnson as well," Taylor said, ticking off Johnson's controversial remarks on issues ranging from downplaying the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol to questioning COVID-19 vaccinations.
Democrats have already pummeled Johnson for his work on the 2017 tax bill in which he pushed through a provision for companies known as pass-throughs. Pro Publica reported the measure benefited mega-donors who funded Johnson's campaign. Johnson defended the provision saying pass-through companies represented 95% of all businesses.
Taylor expected Democrats to try to tie Johnson to former President Donald Trump. And she added that Democrats would surely use some of his comments on policy, especially a recent statement in which Johnson called for subjecting Medicare and Social Security to annual budget talks.
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This article originally appeared on Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: Mandela Barnes, Ron Johnson poised for contentious U.S. Senate battle