Supporters of Mandela Barnes accuse Republicans of airing racist ads in Senate race with Ron Johnson

·6 min read

Supporters of Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes turned up the heat in the U.S. Senate race by accusing Republicans of airing television ads and distributing a mailer that they consider racist.

Barnes, a Democrat who is vying to become the state's first Black senator, is in a tight race with Republican Sen. Ron Johnson.

In a news conference in front of a Republican Party office on the city's north side, Barnes' backers on Wednesday urged Republicans and conservative groups to pull the controversial ads.

"We're calling on Ron Johnson to denounce these ads and for national Republicans to take them down," said Calena Roberts, a field director with SEIU Wisconsin. "We're not stupid. We know what they're up to."

Ben Voelkel, a senior adviser to Johnson, called the attacks and the accusation of racism "absurd."  He said supporters were leveling their criticism now because they can't defend "disastrous results of their radical left policies."

"They also can’t refute the fact that Mandela Barnes is a radical leftist, endorsed by fellow radical leftists, and holds beliefs far outside the mainstream of Wisconsin voters," Voelkel said.

None of the ads coming under criticism were produced or paid for by the Johnson campaign.

Supporters of Senate candidate Mandela Barnes have called into question a campaign mailer produced by the state Republican Party that uses a filter to darken an image of Barnes. At right is the original photo of Barnes.
Supporters of Senate candidate Mandela Barnes have called into question a campaign mailer produced by the state Republican Party that uses a filter to darken an image of Barnes. At right is the original photo of Barnes.

Mandela Barnes' supporters say ads that call him 'different' and 'dangerous' are offensive 

Barnes' campaign released a short statement that didn't discuss the ads or the charges of racism.

"Ron Johnson’s desperate attacks and outright lies won’t stop voters from holding him accountable for his efforts to rip away reproductive freedom, attacks on Social Security and Medicare and record of enriching himself and his wealthy donors," Barnes spokeswoman Maddy McDonald said.

Johnson's campaign and his allies have been pounding Barnes with TV ads and mailers over his views on social justice and crime issues.

In particular, Barnes has come under fire for saying earlier this year that he supports ending cash bail for defendants. He favors a system in which judges would decide whether to lock up or release defendants before trial.

The first-term Democrat has also been repeatedly accused of supporting the liberal efforts to defund police and abolish the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency. Barnes has said he supports neither movement, but he is backed by a half-dozen groups that do.

At the news conference, Barnes' allies pointed, in particular, to two ads and a mailer that they deemed offensive.

One of the ads, paid for by the National Republican Senate Committee, ends with a picture of Barnes with three members of the liberal group called "The Squad" — all women of color — above the words "different" and "dangerous."

State Rep. Evan Goyke with SEIU workers and others at an event in Milwaukee on Wednesday accuse Republican groups of running racist TV ads against Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Mandela Barnes.
State Rep. Evan Goyke with SEIU workers and others at an event in Milwaukee on Wednesday accuse Republican groups of running racist TV ads against Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Mandela Barnes.

State Rep. Evan Goyke, a Milwaukee Democrat, called the ads "despicable." Goyke co-sponsored a number of Barnes' bills while he was in the Assembly, including the measure to eliminate cash bail in Wisconsin.

"So how do you win an election if you don't have a record to stand on? You divide people and you try to make people afraid," Goyke said. "And it is despicable that Johnson and his allies have used race and fear as their main election tactics this cycle. These ads should stop, and he should stand and run on his record."

But Lizzie Litzow, spokeswoman for the NRSC, offered no apologies for the group's TV commercial.

Litzow said the Republican group would continue to air ads attacking Barnes.

"Mandela Barnes has supported a radical, soft-on-crime agenda that would make Wisconsin communities less safe," Litzow said. "We know he’s losing and getting desperate, but we’re going to keep reminding Wisconsin families that Mandela Barnes is a dangerous Democrat, and he’ll just have to deal with that.”

Ads about crime in U.S. Senate race likened to notorious Willie Horton commercial

State Sen. Chris Larson (D-Milwaukee) likened some of the ads to the notorious Willie Horton commercial during the 1988 presidential race.

In that contest, supporters of George H.W. Bush aired an ad accusing his opponent, former Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis, of being soft on crime while showing a menacing mug shot of Horton, a murderer who was furloughed while Dukakis was in office.

Barnes' supporters also questioned a mailer produced by the state Republican Party that uses a filter to darken one side of the flier, including a picture of Barnes. The reverse side uses no filter and touts Johnson's campaign.

Gerard Randall, a top state Republican Party official, noted that Johnson and his allies were being accused of racism largely by two white lawmakers in Goyke and Larson. Randall is Black.

“In his own words, Mandela Barnes has advocated for defunding the police, letting criminals go, eliminating cash bail, and abolishing ICE," Randall said. "He should be held responsible for the extremely dangerous rhetoric he uses and the policies he supports.”

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In an interview after the news conference, Larson noted that Johnson's supporters are using only women of color in their material.

"These are policy positions supported by people like Jamie Raskin or Bernie Sanders," Larson said, referring to the liberal Maryland representative and the Vermont senator, respectively. "They're not putting their pictures up there. That's interesting."

Larson and Goyke have been longtime friends with Barnes, both having served in the state Legislature with him from 2013-16.

Wisconsin group that funded TV ad doesn't back down  

Another ad criticized by Barnes' supporters shows a crime scene in which one individual is circled in red and Barnes' name appears on the left side of the screen. The TV spot is called "Actual Crime Scenes."

Wisconsin Truth PAC, a group funded by Diane Hendricks of ABC Supply in Beloit and Dick and Liz Uihlein of Uline in Pleasant Prairie, paid for the ad. Those billionaires have given a total of $10 million to the super PAC.

An official with Wisconsin Truth PAC dismissed the suggestion that any of its ads were out of line.

"Mandela Barnes is desperately trying to distract from his policies that put criminals over communities," said Kirsten Kukowski, spokeswoman for the political group.

Larson and Goyke said they believed it was perfectly acceptable to debate issues of crime and social justice during a political campaign.

But they said that's not what is going on in the Senate race. This is, they said, no policy discussion.

"When all you put on TV is mug shots and buildings on fire, you're actually not trying to have a debate on the policy," Goyke said. "It's about winning an election through fear and division."

More: Mandela Barnes scrubs two law enforcement endorsements from website, blaming one on 'clerical error'

More: Mandela Barnes, Ron Johnson poised for expensive, contentious U.S. Senate battle

Contact Daniel Bice at (414) 313-6684 or dbice@jrn.com. Follow him on Twitter @DanielBice or on Facebook at fb.me/daniel.bice

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This article originally appeared on Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: Mandela Barnes supporters accuse Republicans of airing racist ads