MILWAUKEE — For months, Wisconsin Republicans telegraphed their desire for Mandela Barnes, the state’s first black lieutenant governor, to be the Democratic nominee to take on Senator Ron Johnson.
Johnson’s GOP Allies are already on the attackwho aligned Barnes, a 35-year-old progressive, with Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, DN.Y., calling him too “radical” for the purple state.
But Johnson’s own strategy involves a more urgent task: to restore his image.
“I try to tell people who I am. I’m pretty proud of what I’ve accomplished in life, both in the private sector and as a United States senator,” Johnson told NBC News in an interview on Tuesday. “I’d much rather lead with that — I’d much rather win based on that message.”
Johnson’s ability to put himself in a more positive light again – his favor is steadily dwindling since 2019 among the voters here — key to the Republicans’ strategy is to retain a Senate seat that could ultimately determine control of the chamber, where Vice President Kamala Harris is now the casting vote.
Several of Johnson’s aides and allies said the senator was privately outraged by Democrats portraying him as a Washington insider who took advantage of his position and lost touch with the average Wisconsinite — a message Barnes is now helping send.
“Lies and distortions are effective, they’re very good at it,” Johnson said, referring to Democrats. “I don’t want to participate in the politics of personal destruction. I will not become what they have become.”
At the same time, the two-year senator cannot risk alienating members of his own party if he is to stand any chance of survival in November; motivating a strong grassroots turnout will be essential to victory on the battlefield. In the latest Marquette Law School poll, released Wednesday, Barnes leads Johnson by seven points with 51% support from respondents, to Johnson’s 44%; the poll had a margin of error of plus or minus 4.2 percent. In June, Johnson trailed Barnes by just two points, 46% to 44%, within the margin of error. Franklin said in a livestream presentation of the new poll. “He gets it from independents.”
And despite early zeal to compete against Barnes, Republicans are also approaching their strategy in Wisconsin with some caution, with some personally acknowledging lessons learned from Democratic Senator Raphael Warnock’s January 2021 victory in Georgia. In that campaign, Republicans portrayed Warnock as a radical and liberal — the same attack the GOP has already launched against Barnes.
Johnson’s first TV ad focused on his personal biography, emphasizing to residents of a state he has served since 2010 that he spent his younger years delivering newspapers and making hay on his uncle’s farm before marrying his wife, who is now 45. years old, and moved to Oshkosh to run a business with her brother. According to his campaign, there will be even more positive advertisements about his biography and his record in the Senate. It’s posts that Johnson, who personally writes many of his own ads, hopes to tone down his mind as Barnes’ attempt to take the mantle as a candidate among the bona fides of the ‘working class’.
Meanwhile, Johnson’s persona is increasingly defined by the controversial headlines he routinely takes his statements about things like: abortion, his continuation of questionable and unproven Covid treatments, and even the recent FBI search of Mar-a-Lago, former President Donald Trump’s Florida residence. Many of those headlines, he says, are the result of his opponents and the media deliberately twisting his words in an attempt to demonize him. Johnson has also bonded closely with Trump, who won Wisconsin in 2016 but narrowly lost in 2020. This week, however, Johnson sidestepped questions as to whether he would invite Trump to campaign with him in the fall.
A campaign worker said Johnson is most nervous of the Democrats portraying him as a “billionaire doing it for himself” and of shots fired at his integrity, including two ethical complaints filed against him. One, who questions his flights to Florida from Wisconsin, was fired. Still pending is a complaint about a $280,000 gift to a chief of staff — payments, according to his campaign, that were intended to cover the old employee’s cancer treatments.
Johnson campaign spokeswoman Alexa Henning said in a statement to NBC News that these were legitimate gifts from the senator’s personal funds that had been fully disclosed.
“He is confident that this frivolous complaint, like a previous complaint filed by a Democrat that was dismissed last month, will be dismissed because he has done absolutely nothing wrong and has in fact been a staunch steward of taxpayers’ money,” Henning said. said. “This is another pathetic and disgusting attempt by the Democrats and their media allies to tarnish the character and integrity of the Senator.”
Still, negative TV ads targeting Barnes are also on deck. On Friday, the National Republican Senatorial Committee is expected to launch an attack on Barnes. And Johnson said he eventually plans to “tell the truth about Mandela Barnes and it won’t be very beneficial.”
Barnes campaign spokesman Maddy McDaniel said that “Ron Johnson will continue to lie about Mandela Barnes to distract voters from his terrible track record.”
She added, “But it’s not working — Wisconsinites are going to pick Mandela Barnes in November,” calling him a “middle-class champion who understands what they’re going through, not an out-of-touch politician like Ron Johnson.”
Still, GOP staff in the state acknowledge concerns that: anti-Warnock attacks may have helped motivate the turnout under Black voters in Georgia, who came out in record numbers and fueled his win. Black voters make up about a third of Georgia’s electorate, but they make up a much smaller voting bloc in Wisconsin, where black rise was generally lower in 2016 and 2020.
“Warnock was really educational,” said a Republican close to the Johnson campaign and not authorized to speak officially. Just as Georgia’s second election was underway in early January 2021, Trump’s false election claims reached a fever pitch. The Washington Post published details of an “extraordinary”” call between the then president requesting the Secretary of State of Georgia to find “11,780 votes” of the 2020 election. “It was accompanied by a record high from Trump,” the Republican said. “That was a fatal combination. Here it is not a deep-seated fear, but an understanding that you must have to make sure you do this the right way. Democrats will try to play the race card every time.”
When asked if racial sensitivities were at play in the contest, Johnson said: “Not on my part. I hope no one is bringing race into this. I actually appreciate what Dr. Martin Luther King was talking about in his speech – that we should judge people by the substance of their character, not by the color of their skin.”
Johnson has performed major electoral duties before. In 2016, he was expected to lose to Russ Feingold, the former Wisconsin senator, but he took a win.
However, Franklin said Johnson lifted his unfavorable points at this point in the race in 2016. Franklin also said that, looking at the surveys he’s conducted since then, the number of people unfamiliar with Johnson — and who may still be persuasive — has dwindled to about 15%. And the number of people with an unfavorable view of Johnson has grown.
“That’s not just one poll,” Franklin said of Johnson’s disfavor. “That’s all the polls showing a really steady trend in this.”
Franklin called Wisconsin Republicans “a strong Trumpy party,” but said about a third of them were “not on that Trump train.”
Some agents in both parties expressed surprise that Johnson’s team hadn’t started targeting Barnes sooner, using its fundraising advantage to define Barnes—perhaps even the week before the primary, when three of Barnes’ opponents were eliminated from the race. fell and cleared his way to the Democratic nomination.
A Wisconsin Republican close to Johnson said in an interview that the GOP had some expectation that an outside political committee would have taken on that task. A Democratic campaign official who was not authorized to speak publicly on the matter said this could be a fatal misstep in what is expected to be a close race.
“Looks like the Republicans missed an opportunity,” the agent said. “If Mandela is going to win, I think we’ll go back to the July and August period when they gave him a pass.”