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MILWAUKEE — Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes, the Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate in Wisconsin, is betting that a renewed focus on abortion rights will help him in his effort to unseat GOP Sen. Ron Johnson.
At a Saturday rally at the high school Barnes attended in the north of the city, pink-hued campaign signs lined the gymnasium and podium, many including the theme that the campaign has been hammering in recent days: “Ron Against Roe.” Alexis McGill Johnson, the president of Planned Parenthood, was in attendance and introduced Barnes, who promised that his vote would help end the filibuster and allow Democrats to make abortion legal nationwide should he defeat Johnson.
“If we get rid of Ron Johnson, if we pick up one more Senate seat, we can get rid of the filibuster,” said Barnes, who was wearing a Planned Parenthood pin. “We can change the way business is done in Washington; we can finally get to work for working people in this country. We can codify the right to choose and protect abortion access. We can have more than a Democratic majority, we can have a pro-choice majority.”
The Supreme Court’s decision to repeal Roe v. Wade this summer effectively banned the procedure in Wisconsin by putting an 1849 law into effect. Since that ruling, abortion rights have become a go-to issue nationwide for Democrats like Barnes, who are pushing back against the usual midterm tide that disfavors the party in power.
While the Wisconsin law does not punish anyone seeking an abortion, it makes it a felony to perform one unless it’s done to save a patient’s life, a gray area that has resulted in danger to pregnant patients awaiting care. Democratic Attorney General Josh Kaul has sued in an attempt to get the 19th century ban struck down as unconstitutional.
Johnson has come out against the 15-week federal ban on abortion recently proposed by Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., although he has supported legislation with similar language multiple times in the past. A staunch social conservative, Johnson called the decision to overturn Roe a “victory” and said that if residents don’t like the abortion laws in their states, they “can move.”
Abortion has also been key in the contest for governor here. Democratic Gov. Tony Evers, who is facing a tough reelection battle, called lawmakers to a special session last week. He was attempting to pass an amendment to the state constitution that would allow Wisconsinites to vote on whether to allow legal abortion. The move, however, was quickly scuttled by the Legislature’s Republican majority. (For his part, Johnson has proposed his own ballot question on abortion, while at the same time dismissing Evers’s attempt as a political stunt.)
Saturday capped off a week in which Wisconsin Democrats put their focus squarely on abortion. Polls indicate that most Wisconsinites did not want Roe v. Wade overturned, giving Democrats an issue to campaign on in a state where Republicans have emphasized issues like inflation and crime.
Last Tuesday, Evers held a rally on the steps of the state Capitol in Madison after the special session was quickly ended. Evers, Barnes and Kaul were all in attendance at a Planned Parenthood event Saturday evening in Middleton. Barnes told reporters after the Milwaukee rally that there would be additional “Ron Against Roe” events over the campaign’s final month.
“Any politician that thinks they can get between you and your doctor does not deserve their seat in office,” Barnes said Saturday. “This November — a month away — we have a chance to make our voices heard. We have a chance to vote them all out.”
“This is the closing argument,” McGill Johnson, the Planned Parenthood leader, told Yahoo News at a canvassing kickoff that followed the Saturday rally.
“People understand that abortion rights are economic rights, are freedom rights. At the end of the day, all of these things are intersecting around 'Do we have the ability to live the lives that we decide that we want to live?' So I think it’s really important that Mandela Barnes is showing up as strongly in support of reproductive freedom.”
For Barnes, the abortion-focused events are a way to change the conversation from a barrage of attacks on his criminal justice record. Advertisements from Johnson and his allies have attacked both a Barnes proposal for bail reform and his efforts to reduce the prison population. They’ve also called him a “defund-the-police Democrat” and superimposed his name over footage of a crime scene. (Barnes has said he doesn't support defunding, but has stated that parts of police budgets could be distributed to other community safety programs.)
The ads have also aligned the lieutenant governor — who would be the state’s first Black senator — with “the Squad” (the group of progressive congresswomen of color who are a frequent target of right-wing media), despite the fact that they have not campaigned with him. Barnes’s supporters have said Johnson’s crime-focused ads are racist and argue that Wisconsin GOP campaign literature mailed to residents darkened Barnes’s skin color, a charge that state Republicans reject. Johnson, for his part, told a Milwaukee radio host in September that Democrats were “playing the race card” in responding to his attack ads.
“Barnes is desperately trying to change the narrative from his support for defunding the police and failed policies that are dangerous for Wisconsin,” a Johnson campaign spokesman told Yahoo News.
Barnes’s supporters acknowledge that the ads have taken their toll on the lieutenant governor.
“There are so many ads against Barnes, and they're clearly very focused on crime,” Kate Duffy, who founded the group Moms for Mandela, told Yahoo News. “That's what they're really driving home. They started really, really heavy with these after the primary, and I think that it has kind of swayed some people. And so what we're trying to do is finally get out and combat that and let them know that it's not really what it seems.”
Duffy added that Barnes’s campaign “has shifted, and they're going on the offense a little bit too, and coming back. And they want to make sure people know that actually Ron Johnson is very dangerous for the people of this state, particularly the women of this state.”
Wisconsinites can expect the barrage of ads to continue through Election Day. Republicans have been delighted with the effectiveness of Johnson’s commercials, while Barnes’s campaign announced this week it had raised $20.1 million in July, August and September.
Despite that impressive fundraising haul, polling has shown the race potentially slipping away from Barnes. With the Democratic field consolidated behind him, Barnes emerged from the August primary with a 7-point lead over Johnson, according to a Marquette Law poll. A month later, that margin had evaporated, with Johnson having a 1-point lead in Marquette’s September survey.
In the September poll, 88% of respondents said they were either very or somewhat concerned about crime. Some 94% percent had the same level of concern about inflation, another issue that has favored the GOP. The silver lining for Democrats came when the survey asked about abortion. A clear majority of respondents — 63% — said they disagreed with the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade. Just 30% approved of the repeal.
As Johnson runs for a third term after originally promising to serve only two, abortion is just one of his many vulnerabilities. He has defended the Jan. 6, 2021, Capitol riot as a largely “peaceful protest,” employed staffers who were involved in attempts to throw out the 2020 election results, promoted dubious remedies for COVID-19 and floated broad changes to Social Security and Medicare. He’s also been accused of holding up the GOP’s 2017 tax cut until it contained a provision that would save two of his biggest donors millions in taxes.
But Johnson is a proven political survivor. In his 2016 reelection bid, he trailed former Democratic Sen. Russ Feingold in nearly every poll the entire year. The situation appeared so bleak that national Republicans all but abandoned him. Yet with the help of a last-ditch boost of outside money, Johnson defeated Feingold by nearly 4 points and garnered more votes than Donald Trump.
During a debate between Barnes and Johnson on Friday, the senator repeatedly circled back to crime and inflation. When asked what he would do about the crime rate, Johnson said to fully fund police and thank them for their service, but said additional gun safety laws wouldn’t help stem violence.
Barnes defended his bail reform plan and said Johnson’s support of law enforcement did not extend to the officers injured in the Jan. 6 insurrection. He also attacked Johnson on both gay marriage — which the Republican senator said was settled law and did not need to be addressed by Congress — and abortion.
“Now, when we’re talking about children and unplanned pregnancies, Sen. Johnson once went so far as to say it's not his responsibility to take care of our children in this country,” Barnes said, referring to comments Johnson made in January. “[He] won’t even support the child tax credit. Now, people are dealing with some very tough circumstances, but the senator would rather make a political point than to do the right thing to protect families and to protect the health of women.”
Following the Supreme Court’s abortion ruling, Democrats beat expectations in several contests. In conservative Kansas, voters in August overwhelmingly rejected a Republican attempt to repeal the state constitution’s abortion protections. Weeks later, Democrats scored an upset in an upstate New York swing district after emphasizing abortion rights.
But with less than a month to go until Election Day, the question for Barnes and other Democrats is whether the abortion issue can mitigate Republican advantages when it comes to inflation, crime and widespread discontent with President Biden’s performance.
Barnes’s supporters are hopeful that will be the case. “We do a lot of open canvassing, go to events in the communities and do door-knocks, so I've talked to quite a few folks about this,” Moms for Mandela's Duffy said. “And I think the [abortion] decision in particular has really gotten a lot of people ready to vote and paying attention that wouldn't necessarily pay attention or come out to vote in an election like this before.”
McGill Johnson was similarly sanguine about Barnes’s chances.
“We’ve seen increased voter registrations from women, from young people, from people of color, from dads with daughters, from all of these demographics that are coming out in really strong ways because they understand that our freedoms are at stake.”