CORRECTION: An earlier version of this report misstated the circumstances surrounding George Floyd’s death.
Wisconsin’s Democratic Senate candidate Mandela Barnes finds himself facing a big question ahead of Election Day: Will voters care about his stance on crime?
Democrats from Washington to Wisconsin have taken steps to prioritize policing and public safety ahead of the midterms, distancing themselves from the soft-on-crime profile that Republicans have said defines their liberal opposition.
But the party’s struggle to do so in unison is playing out in one of the highest-profile races this cycle, where Barnes, a young Black populist candidate, is fending off attacks from Sen. Ron Johnson (R) and aligned Republicans in the battle for the state’s open Senate seat.
The rift has caused Democrats to wonder about the outcome of conservatives’ favorite critique in the tightening race.
“We know that the GOP is going to run this crime and immigration playbook. We’re seeing it happen already,” said Lanae Erickson, senior vice president for social policy, education and politics at Third Way, a center-left think tank.
“Every Democrat in the country needs to be prepared to deal with attacks on crime,” she said.
Democrats hope Wisconsin helps secure the Senate for their side. Voters often swing between red and blue in the battleground, keeping onlookers guessing about the mood of the electorate in midterm and presidential cycles.
In nominating Barnes, Democrats embraced a candidate who, if victorious against Johnson, shares ideology with both progressives and centrists in the upper chamber. While many on the left, like Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), claim Barnes for their wing, so do moderates like Biden and House Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-S.C.).
Notably, the most prominent line of attack on crime has dogged the entire Democratic Party for years — not just liberals.
This cycle is no exception. In an effort to derail their opponent, Republicans in the state, bolstered by energized national groups, have put out ads calling Barnes “dangerous,” using his own words in prior interviews against him.
Barnes said to a local PBS affiliate after George Floyd was murdered by a Minneapolis police officer in 2020 that police budgets were, in his estimation, “over-bloated” and that more money needs to be invested in “neighborhood services and programming for our residents, for our communities on the front end.” Republicans have sought to use those remarks to score political points in the final stretch of the race.
Team Barnes, for its part, has hit back. They dropped an ad Thursday featuring a former law enforcement official speaking broadly about the lieutenant governor’s stance on policing, seeking to clear up new questions that have been raised in recent days.
“I worked on the force for 30 years. I’ve seen plenty of politicians, but Mandela, he’s the real deal,” said the former officer in the narrated segment, which features footage of Barnes smiling with residents.
“Mandela doesn’t want to defund the police. He’s very supportive of law enforcement, and I know his objective is to make every community in the state of Wisconsin better,” he said.
Another spot featured Barnes spelling things out clearly for voters. “I’ll make sure our police have the resources and training they need to keep our communities safe and that our communities have the resources to stop crime before it happens,” the Democratic nominee said.
Democrats see the GOP’s strategy as potentially problematic in a neck-and-neck race. The issue is not so much Barnes’s record or ideology, some say, but that Democratic candidates — particularly those who are Black — are especially vulnerable to conservative attacks on crime.
“No matter who the nominee was going to be in Wisconsin, they would have run that ad. The question is: Does it stick?” Erickson said. “The fact that they have a statement of his own rather than someone else in the party is one thing that might make it stick more.”
Barnes has expressed support of more progressive criminal justice policies in the past, including ending the current cash bail system as it exists nationally, a favorite of liberals who say the setup creates an uneven burden for lower income incarcerated individuals.
National Republicans have also sought to portray Barnes as far-left, even though many Democrats in the state, including some moderates, rebuke that characterization. The National Republican Senatorial Committee has depicted Barnes in campaign materials with “Squad” members in the House, who are often villainized by the GOP as the most ideologically extreme versions of Democrats.
“They know exactly what they’re doing. It’s dog-whistle politics. It’s MAGA Republicans,” said Tiffany Flowers, campaign director of The Frontline, a progressive organization. “It’s racism dressed up a little bit before they try and strip it all the way down as we move to Election Day.”
Barnes has consistently said that he does not support defunding the police in any capacity, a stance that puts him in alignment with President Biden. The phrase started as a way for activists to bring attention to issues around police brutality but has lost popularity in recent cycles as the party has moved away from the harder-line approach.
“That has not been anything that’s ever been in his purview,” said Tracey Corder, a national organizer with the Action Center on Race and the Economy who has longstanding ties to Wisconsin.
“Defund is a local demand,” she said. “It’s interesting to see it being leveled at him.”
For now, polls of the race show a virtual tie. One recent survey released by Emerson College has Johnson with a 4-percentage point lead over Barnes, 48 percent to 44 percent. Another poll gives Barnes the edge. A Siena College survey places Barnes at 48 percent to Johnson’s 47 percent among registered voters. A polling aggregate by FiveThirtyEight has the two Wisconsin Senate contenders in a dead heat.
Democrats say the Republican impulse to dredge up tactics on crime can be effective, but they’re certainly not new.
“It’s a very, very old playbook: law and order, and the MAGA Republicans know it,” Flowers said. “Bringing ‘defund’ into the conversation is the best way to derail the conversation because it’s a full-stop way to get people to stop talking about the actual issues.”
–Updated at 8:46 a.m.