Republicans in Wisconsin have been attacking Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes on crime for the past few weeks. They are trying to connect with the few suburban voters who could decide one of the closest Senate contests in the nation.
The ads, which use what Barnes has said in interviews over the past few years, show how the GOP's strategy is changing with less than two months until the midterm elections. As gas prices go down and the reaction to the U.S. Supreme Court's decision to end federal abortion rights changes the political landscape, candidates and outside groups are focusing on more than just inflation.
According to the nonpartisan firm AdImpact, Republican candidates and groups spent $25 million on T.V. ads that talked about inflation and $11 million on T.V. ads that talked about crime in August. But that mix started to change in the first two weeks of September. $9 million was spent by GOP campaigns and organizations on crime and inflation, respectively.
In Pennsylvania's Senate race, an ad from the Senate Leadership Fund, a super PAC linked to Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell, calls the Democratic nominee, Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, "dangerously liberal on crime" because he supports prison reforms.
The streets of Ohio are bursting with drugs and violence as liberals like [Democratic opponent] Tim Ryan attack and eliminate funding for our police, according to a recent advertisement by J.D. Vance, a venture investor running for the Senate." Ryan, a congressman from Youngstown, responded by making an ad in which he throws a football at a T.V. screen that says "defund the police." At the same time, he talks about how bad culture wars are.
In Wisconsin, Barnes's ad, which came out two weeks ago, said that Republicans are trying to scare voters by saying he wants to stop funding the police, which he called "a lie."
In the ad, Barnes says, "I'll ensure that our police have the equipment and training they require to keep our communities secure, as well as that our communities have the equipment required to prevent crime before it occurs."
In an August speech in Pennsylvania, President Joe Biden also called for 100,000 more police officers to help keep communities safe. Biden said in his speech, "As we hire more police officers, there should be more training, more help, and more accountability."
On the other side, Republicans say they think the attacks on Barnes are working because Barnes has taken what Republicans see as politically damaging positions on camera, on T.V., on radio, and in podcasts, which are now being used in ads.
"It's even worse when he's caught on video saying he wants to stop giving money to the police. It's a clear link, "A Republican running for the Senate in Wisconsin said this.
So far, the attacks have been mostly about Barnes's work as a state lawmaker to get rid of cash bail, as well as an interview he gave to PBS Wisconsin in 2020, A few weeks after George Floyd was killed by police in nearby Minnesota, in which he said that money from police budgets should be used for other social services.
"We need to put more money upfront into neighborhood services and programs for our residents and communities," he said. "Where will they get that money? Well, it could be because police departments have too big budgets."
In the same interview, he did say that he did not want police budgets to be completely cut. He said, "The more money we put into giving people opportunities, the less we have to spend on prisons."
The Senate GOP's political arm is called the National Republican Senatorial Committee, called Barnes "dangerous" and a "defund the police Democrat" in an ad that came out on Monday and used audio from that interview.
In other ads, Republicans talked about Barnes's work a decade ago as an organizer for a Milwaukee-based social justice group to cut Wisconsin's prison population in half, to 11,000 inmates by 2015, and his support for ending cash bail. Barnes has said that his plans to end cash bail would have required judges to keep people in jail if there was clear evidence that the person charged with a crime was dangerous.
On Thursday, Barnes' campaign released a list of endorsements from nine current and former police officers and sheriff's deputies. The list was meant to counter the attacks.
In a statement announcing the endorsements, Paul Piotrowski, a retired police sergeant from Stevens Point, Wisconsin, said of Barnes, "He wants to make sure we have the resources we need to do our jobs while also getting to the root of the problem to help stop crime before it has a chance to start." Barnes is a Democrat running for the U.S. Senate in Wisconsin.