It was the latest leg of his “Barnes for Barns” tour through rural Wisconsin aimed at attracting voters who more generally fuel Republican victories in the tightly divided state.
The discussion at Hinchley’s Dairy Farm with a panel of guest farmers covered the expected topics – climate change, affordable health care, an alarming rise in farmer suicides and the decline of the small dairy farms Wisconsin is known for. But it kept coming back to a key question:
How to beat Ron Johnson, the incumbent Republican?
“We’re showing up,” said Barnes, the state’s lieutenant governor. “We speak directly to people about the challenges they face that Ron Johnson has always ignored. I think one of the biggest problems is that a lot of places outside of Milwaukee and Madison just haven’t seen enough Democrats.
Beating Johnson has vexed Democrats since the former plastics maker burst onto the scene as a tea stranger in 2010 and beat Democratic Sen. Russ Feingold, and did it again in 2016. Ongoing road, Johnson has become one of Donald Trump’s most outspoken. — and to his opponents, the most detestable — partisans.
Johnson was first elected as a fiscal conservative, known for his attacks on spending and his desire to reduce the national debt. His campaign ads featured numerous bar charts and graphs. In recent years, as the coronavirus has risen and Trump has fallen, he has become a lightning rod by championing anti-science positions and espousing conspiracy theories about the 2020 election.
Johnson elevated unproven COVID-19 treatments such as mouthwash and questioned the need for COVID-19 vaccines. He called climate change a “bull—”. He joined the many Republicans who downplayed the riot at the US Capitol on January 6, 2021, saying he was not scared of insurgents but would have been worried had they been Black Lives Matter protesters .
More broadly, Johnson voted for a massive tax cut that he recently acknowledged benefited his company and wealthy campaign donors; blocked proposals to distribute $1,200 stimulus checks to Americans; and opposed winning a federal contract that would have created hundreds of jobs in Wisconsin.
Now, with control of the Senate on the line and Wisconsin among a handful of states with tossed races, Johnson rushes past voters with a staunch conservative base and bad numbers for a Democratic president whose party historically loses in the election. mid-term.
Still, Democrats are still optimistic that Johnson — whose favorable rating stood at 33% in February in the Marquette University Law School poll — is more vulnerable than ever.
Democratic strategist Joe Zepecki said Johnson “had two really good Republican years in ’10 and ’16. He can benefit from that again.” The challenge is how to reverse this trend. He added: “I think we can do it. He gave us enough water for the mill.
Democrats intend to portray Johnson as a different man from the one voters elected in 2010, someone who went from a foreign businessman preoccupied with the national debt to, as Zepecki calls him, “a conspiracy theory-fueled crank”.
They hope Johnson’s more incendiary comments will turn off just enough of the moderate Republicans who deserted Trump in suburban Milwaukee and just enough of the roughly 7% independent voters to swing things their way.
The desire to beat Johnson has, for now, largely united top Democrats in the Senate race ahead of the Aug. 9 primary.
Alex Lasry, an executive for the Milwaukee Bucks – his father, Marc, is a co-owner – has spent millions on TV ads as he courts unions and attacks Johnson as anti-worker.
Sarah Godlewski, the state treasurer, describes Johnson as an out-of-touch extremist in her ads. She was endorsed by Emily’s List.
Outagamie County executive Tom Nelson trails in money but leads in smarts, cutting creative online videos that include a yard sale fundraiser (his kids’ dinosaur toys for $10).
Barnes, who is black, leads the Democratic pack in money, endorsements and early polls. Rural voters aside, his winning strategy almost surely hinges on energizing minority voters in his hometown of Milwaukee — a huge cache of liberal votes that is essential for any Democrat running statewide.
Republicans reject Barnes’ stint in rural Wisconsin, pointing to comments he made during the 2018 gubernatorial race in which he said he was not interested in winning over Trump voters. (Barnes later said he wanted to appeal to all “forgotten” voters.) They also dismiss the broader Democratic strategy of attacking Johnson as extreme, saying similar attacks have failed in his last two races.
“At this point, I just don’t see the game plan where Republicans are going to go en masse,” longtime GOP strategist Brandon Scholz said. “It’s a 50-50 state. In a competitive race, if both teams do their job, someone is going to win by a point or two.”
Johnson’s campaign spokesman Jake Wilkins said the senator’s strategy for winning was to “work hard and just tell the truth.”
“The Democrats’ strategy is obvious,” Wilkins said. “They will continue to lie and misrepresent his record and take everything he says out of context to falsely portray his position on the issues. the Democrats, spreading the message and agenda of the radical left.
As long as Johnson can maintain the same margins as Trump in more rural parts of Wisconsin and perform as well in suburban Milwaukee counties as he did in 2016, he will win, said Republican strategist Keith Gilkes, who ran the former Governor Scott Walker. first campaign.
Additionally, Wisconsin has a long history of electing maverick politicians — like Feingold and Joseph McCarthy, the disgraced communist hunter many on the left have increasingly compared to Johnson.
Johnson hasn’t always had the full support of the Republican Party establishment, but with so much at stake this year, there seems to be no doubt about that. The Senate Leadership Fund, a top Republican super PAC, is “participating” in Johnson’s re-election, spokesman Jack Pandol said.
Johnson can also benefit from the big Democratic primary where millions have already been spent and Republicans are hoping the winner will have to move so far left to win that they will come out broke and cash-strapped.
If the economy and inflation remain voters’ top issues this fall, Johnson will win, said Gilkes, the Republican strategist.
“If it’s not relevant to the current conversation, people don’t care,” Gilkes said. “I think Trump proved that in 2016. There are a number of unfortunate comments the president made and he still won.”