Mandela Barnes' Negative Campaign May Fall Flat With Wisconsin Swing Voters

About 150 Wisconsinites, many of them farmers, surround the stage in rural Glenwood City. It's 10:00 a.m. on September 17 with clouds hanging low over the "bucolic" scene, as Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar describes it from the stage.

People in the crowd wear T-shirts that say "Roevember" and "This is what a feminist looks like." They came to scratch a common itch.

"He's a traitor," a woman shouts about Wisconsin's incumbent Republican Senator, Ron Johnson. "He's a traitor," she yells again.

She was responding to a statement Klobuchar made regarding Johnson's past comments in which he described many of the January 6 protestors as having a "jovial, friendly, earnest demeanor."

When the star of the day's rally arrives on stage, the rhetoric around Johnson intensifies.

Mandela Barnes Rally in Glenwood City, Wisconsin
U.S. Democratic Senate Candidate for Wisconsin Mandela Barnes appeared alongside Minnesota's Democratic Senator Amy Klobuchar at a rally in Glenwood City, Wisconsin on September 17, 2022. The two spoke about their desire to see Republican Senator Ron Johnson replaced ousted from the Senate. Alex J. Rouhandeh

"We're a hard-working state — people are not looking for a handout, we just want a fair shot," Democratic Lieutenant Governor and Senate candidate Mandela Barnes tells the crowd, "and we know we'll never get that fair shot as long as Ron Johnson is in the U.S. Senate."

"We're talking about an out-of-touch, self-serving politician who — he has doubled his wealth, that's one thing — but he is hell-bent on making everybody else's life worse," Johnson continues. "He still wants to repeal the Affordable Care Act. He's come out in favor of putting Social Security and Medicare on the chopping block."

"The benefits people have worked their entire lives for," he says, "Senator Johnson wants to snatch the rug from underneath people's feet."

Wisconsinite Wears 'Kasich 2020' at Barnes Rally
Matt McGee wears his "Kasich 2020" T-shirt at Mandela Barnes' rally on September 17, 2022 in Glenwood City, Wisconsin. Alex J. Rouhandeh

Matt McGee, who said his wife brought him to the rally, showed up wearing a "Kasich 2020" shirt. He told Newsweek he was raised Republican and identifies as a conservative, but does not like Donald Trump who he views as "treasonous."

While he voted for Ron Johnson in the past, he feels a "little bit of shame" for making that decision. He views Johnson as a liar, and dislikes his support for Trump as well as his approach to the January 6 insurrection.

As a veteran, he said he takes democracy "very serious." Heading toward 2022, the economy is an important issue for him, but he said "leadership and honesty" are driving factors as well.

Newsweek asked him what he likes about Barnes.

"He's running against Ron Johnson," McGee said. "I don't honestly know a whole lot about him. I just think we need to get rid of Ron Johnson."

Ron Johnson Capitol Building Mandela Barnes
Photo-Illustration by Newsweek; Source Images by Getty

On the surface, such a quote coming from a Republican would appear to convey the kind of sentiments that Barnes needs heading into November. But at its core, it exposes a key issue facing the senate hopeful's campaign — people don't know enough about him.

A September 14 poll by Marquette University Law School found that 25% of voters "haven't heard enough" about Barnes to share an opinion on him. Meanwhile, 11% said the same about Johnson. The poll also showed Johnson leading Barnes by one point, 49-48, among likely voters. This was a significant drop from the 52-45 advantage Barnes posted in Marquette's previous poll.

"I like that he has a good chance to defeat Ron Johnson," a Wisconsinite said of Barnes.

"Polls go up and down," Barnes said when asked about the shift during a press briefing following the rally. "We've always campaigned as if we were five points down, even in the primary, and we're gonna continue to show up all over the state delivering our message about rebuilding the middle class, providing opportunity for people, but also holding Ron Johnson accountable."

While Barnes may be correct about the ever-shifting nature of polls, it seems his top-of-mind negative messaging about Johnson has insinuated itself into the minds of his own supporters.

"I like that he's got a good chance to defeat Ron Johnson," Audrey Oreskvoic, a resident of Black River Falls, Wisconsin who attended the rally, told Newsweek, when asked what she liked about Barnes. "[Johnson] just needs to go."

As the Barnes campaign heads toward November, the question of whether not being Ron Johnson will be enough to grab the attention and votes of the state's middle may become one of its most pertinent questions.

Cow in St. Croix County, Wisconsin Barnes
The number of dairy cow herds in Wisconsin has declined as large farms have taken control of a larger share of cropland. Here, cows graze at a roadside pasture in St. Croix County, Wisconsin on September 17, 2022. Alex J. Rouhandeh

The Pew Research Center reports that in Wisconsin 42% of voters lean or identify as Republican and another 42% lean or identify as Democrats. Just 16% fall in the true middle.

In a separate report, Pew reports that these voters are overall less politically engaged, with those in the true middle being even harder to reach. Just 33% of true independents voted in 2018, and those that lean left or right were "considerably more likely" to say they voted than those who do not lean.

If the trends of 2018 hold true, this group may well constitute a very small segment of those that show up at their polling places on November 8. That means for Barnes to pull away from Johnson, he will have to sway a significant percentage of those in the middle who lean Republican.

In Glenwood City, Barnes presides over a group who understand what he's about. As a business-attired, 35-year-old African American he may not look like many of the people in this rural audience, but, he is nonetheless one of their own.

Barnes was born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin to a union-member father at the GM factory and a union-member schoolteacher mother. He makes it clear that he "doesn't come from a wealthy or well-connected family" — he is middle class, and the crowd loves him for it.

Wisconsin Woman Wears Shirt Reading Roevember
Becky Linke, of St. Croix County, Wisconsin, wears a shirt reading "Rovember" at a Mandela Barnes rally in Glenwood City, Wisconsin on September 17, 2022. Alex J. Rouhandeh

However, they make it clear they love him for another reason, one he makes very clear to them — he's not Ron Johnson.

"We need to replace our current senator who is voting against the people every single time he votes," says Becky Linke, the woman wearing the Roevember shirt, a resident of the county and employee of a veterinarian technology company.

"For instance, Ron Johnson voted against the infrastructure bill," she says, "which we are going to reap the benefits of."

Linke lists Johnson's objections to the legitimacy of the 2020 election, support for election deniers in Wisconsin elections, lack of concern for the environment, and disconnect with farmers as reasons why she dislikes him.

Other people with ties to the farming industry express similar sentiments. Jim Hare, a beef cattle farmer and resident of Prairie Farm, Wisconsin, told Newsweek he'd seen too many family farms get squeezed out of their livelihoods over the years due to the rise of corporate farming. He feels Ron Johnson and his policy stances contribute to that issue.

Mandela Barnes Supporter in Glenwood City, Wisconsin
Jim Hare appears at a Mandela Barnes rally in Glenwood City, Wisconsin on September 17, 2022. Alex J. Rouhandeh

Barnes is asked what policies he would introduce to address these issues.

"We got to stop incentivizing and writing subsidies to companies that move jobs overseas — that's a Ron Johnson practice," he tells Newsweek. "That same story can be told all over the place, this corporate greed that has been making people's lives more difficult, and it will only get worse because it has gotten worse with out-of-touch politicians like Ron Johnson."

That quote mirrors much of Barnes' focus over the course of his September 17 campaign day. From abortion to manufacturing and health care, in nearly every single one of Barnes' political rallying cries, he draws contrasts between himself and Johnson.

Since being added to Barnes' press list on August 22, this Newsweek reporter has received 51 out of 67 press emails mentioning Johnson's name. 27 of those emails included the senator's name in the subject line.

Mandela Barnes Supporters at Wisconsin Rally
Attendees at Democratic Senate Candidate Mandela Barnes' rally in Glenwood City, Wisconsin listen to his speech on September 17, 2022. Glenwood City rests in Wisconsin's 3rd Congressional District, an area currently represented by a Democrat, but that the Cook Partisan Voting Index rates as R+4 going into 2022. Alex J. Rouhandeh

The contrast approach is not unique to politics. President Joe Biden frequently invokes a quote from his father: "Don't compare me to the Almighty. Compare me to the alternative." And Democratic Senate candidates Lieutenant Governor John Fetterman of Pennsylvania and Representative Tim Ryan of Ohio have seen recent polling success running harsh ads against their opponents.

However, those two men are not running against a seated incumbent who has served for two consecutive terms.

Newsweek asked Barnes whether he thought the focus on Johnson might be stifling his campaign.

"It allows us to get our message across because there's a real contrast," Barnes said. "Ron Johnson says we have enough jobs. As a product of a hard-working union household, I am dancing on creating good paying jobs here in Wisconsin."

Newsweek reached out to the Johnson campaign for comment, and received the following response: "Mandela Barnes is a dangerous Democrat who supports the economy-killing Green New Deal that would be devastating for rural Wisconsin," the comment read. "His radical policies would make Wisconsin less prosperous, less safe, and less free."

Ron Johnson Supporter at Baptist Church
Mark Stevens, of Watertown, Wisconsin appears at the Calvary Baptist Church in Watertown on September 18, 2022. Alex J. Rouhandeh

By bringing up the actions of Johnson, particularly to the press, Barnes ensures that the focus remains on the senator's record. To Barnes' point on jobs, Johnson said in February 2022 that "It's not like we don't have enough jobs here in Wisconsin," when reporters asked whether he'd persuade Oshkosh Defense to bring 1,000 jobs to Wisconsin rather than South Carolina.

While this strategy may put the burden on Johnson to defend his record, critics of Barnes pose the question that the more junior candidate in an election often encounters — "What have you done?"

"I'm actually surprised that he, number one, won the Democratic ticket and, two, that he has a following," Mark Stevens, a self-described conservative resident of Watertown, Wisconsin, where he serves as city finance director, told Newsweek. "I'm not really sure what he accomplished in office."

Stevens did not offer much specific criticism of Barnes, saying that his opposition to him was primarily because he was a Democrat. Russell and Nan Krueger, who have a large Ron Johnson sign outside of their Watertown, Wisconsin home and identify as Republican, had similar remarks.

Rural Wisconsinite Supports Ron Johnson with Sign
Russel Krueger stands in his front yard next to a sign supporting Wisconsin's Republican Senator Ron Johnson on September 18, 2022 in Watertown, Wisconsin. Alex J. Rouhandeh

Their primary indictment of Barnes was his association with the Democratic "agenda." They did not speak toward any specific policy concerns, but said they thought that Barnes would be soft on crime, a message the Johnson camp has made a focus of its campaign in recent weeks.

"[Barnes] is part of the left agenda, so he's going to walk in step with them," Nan Krueger told Newsweek. "And crime really concerns me, because he has the belief that we need to take our funds and move them from supporting the police to more of a social work situation."

"He has ads that say that's not what he does and those are his statements," Russell Krueger said, "but then you could find those things that he stated in the past."

Barnes said numerous times throughout the day of campaigning, as the issue came up during press briefs, that he does not support "defund the police." However, he has expressed support for investing in "neighborhood services and programming." He said such funds "could come" from "over-bloated" police budgets. On his campaign website, he stresses he wants to "stop crime in the first place" by "investing in communities."

"When it comes to crime and violence, I've unfortunately lost friends to gun violence," Barnes said in response to a question from Newsweek on the role of crime and gun violence in the race. "This is a pain I hope nobody ever has to experience. My priority is keeping communities safe because I've dealt with it more than once. I've dealt with it more times than I care to count."

But no matter how many times Barnes repeats this point, it might not matter. Because just as Barnes' supporters are united in opposing Johnson, Johnson's supporters are united in their opposition to the Democratic Party.

Signs Supporting Republican Candidates in Wisconsin
Signs supporting Republican candidates line the sidewalk outside the GOP headquarters in Watertown, Wisconsin on September 18, 2022. The Cook Partisan Voting Index voted the area containing Watertown, Wisconsin's 5th Congressional District, "R+14," safely red, heading into the 2022 election. Alex J. Rouhandeh

"I fear an imbalance of power, actually, between both the executive and legislative branches to all have the same representation — I think that is not good for the country," Stevens said, when asked what was motivating him this election cycle.

"I am most interested in having some bipartisanship that works," he said. "I have felt in the most recent number of months since Biden's election that a conservative in the United States has had multiple things that have caused harm or alarm in where the future of the country is going."

Stevens told Newsweek that he feels religious protections are being abridged as Democrats prioritize gender and sexuality rights. Supporting protections for gender-nonconforming individuals and same sex marriages contradicts the religious beliefs he holds as a Baptist, a contrast in support that "can't exist," he said. Stevens felt Johnson would better represent his beliefs.

Barnes supports same-sex marriages and the "equal rights" of LGBTQ+ people. Johnson has said "it's creepy" for transgender women to use women's bathrooms, and he reversed his position this summer to support a bill codifying same sex marriage, calling it "completely unnecessary." His campaign page does not list it as an issue.

The Kruegers felt similarly about the magnitude of this race, saying the Constitution has been "abused" and "eroded." They feel that conservatives have been "censored," offering efforts to combat "misinformation" around COVID-19 as an example.

Nan Krueger said she sees such issues as threats to First Amendment rights.

Watertown, Wisconsin Home in Support of Trump
A sign hanging from a porch railing is shown on a Watertown, Wisconsin home on September 18, 2022. Alex J. Rouhandeh

"The right to be able to speak the truth is being eroded," she told Newsweek. "What I hold as true, I'm being censored from being able to speak it, and I shouldn't be. I should be able to speak whatever I feel is the truth. Whether it is the truth or not, in my eyes, I believe it is the truth."

Both the Kreugers felt that COVID-19 brought "a lot of issues to light." They said vaccine requirements and quarantine restrictions abridged individual freedoms, and they felt that their concerns about risks surrounding the COVID-19 vaccine were disregarded by the government. For them, this election is about freedom and the future of the country.

"This election is probably the most important election that we've ever had," Nan Kreuger told Newsweek. "We're going to go one way or the other. We're not going to stay in the middle anymore."