Democratic Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes and incumbent Republican Sen. Ron Johnson went head to head Thursday night at Marquette University in the second and final debate of Wisconsin’s U.S. Senate race.
Barnes and Johnson shared policy proposals on a variety of statewide and national issues, including Chinese tariffs’ effects on Wisconsin agribusiness, social security, crime and law enforcement and abortion.
A major issue discussed during the debate was Social Security and Medicare. President Joe Biden previously claimed Johnson’s proposal to make Social Security and Medicare discretionary funding would put the program at risk of being cut in future federal budgets.
Johnson said he made the proposal to “save” Medicare during Thursday’s debate.
“The greatest threat to any government program is massive out of control deficit spending,” he added.
The two candidates split on abortion. Barnes reaffirmed his support for Roe v. Wade and advocated for renewed federal abortion rights protections, which were eliminated when the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe in June.
Johnson did not call for Roe’s reinstatement. Instead, he promoted a statewide referendum that would determine when state governments could restrict abortions.
Debate moderators pointed out that the Republican-controlled Wisconsin Legislature denied Democratic Gov. Tony Evers’ similar proposal to take abortion to a referendum. Evers previously asked the Legislature to consider the proposal in special session, but Republicans gaveled in and out of the Oct. 4 session in seconds with no debate.
Shifting to crime, Johnson attacked Barnes for his opposition to cash bail as well as his stance on crime and relationship to police officers.
Barnes responded, claiming Johnson failed to support police officers through his office’s role in encouraging election misinformation that led to the Jan. 6 U.S. Capitol insurrection.
“No police were more dispirited than the ones who were at the Capitol on Jan. 6,” Barnes said.
Johnson responded by claiming that Barnes “incited” August 2020 protests in Kenosha after Kyle Rittenhouse shot and severely injured Jacob Blake. Johnson’s claim is “false,” according to non-partisan fact-checking organization PolitiFact.
Barnes and Johnson also critiqued each other on a range of topics from their employment history to their relationship to Russia throughout the night.
At the end of the debate, the moderators asked both candidates to state something they admired about the other candidate.
Barnes spoke first, saying he respected Johnson as a “family man.” Johnson also spoke positively about Barnes’ family before switching tones and disparaging Barnes.
“I guess what puzzles me is with that, with that upbringing, why has he turned against America?” Johnson said.
Johnson’s comment was met by boos from in-person audience members at Marquette University, who were repeatedly asked to stop their reactions by the moderators.
Thursday’s debate came just three weeks before Nov. 8 midterm elections, right as Johnson surged six points ahead of Barnes in a Marquette University Law School poll released Wednesday.
Johnson’s 52% to 46% polling lead is a sharp reversal from August’s Marquette poll, where Barnes led Johnson 52% to 45%.
Wisconsin is one of several states that could dictate control of the Senate until the next election cycle, making Johnson’s Republican-held seat a key target for Democrats hoping to expand their razor-thin Senate majority.
Noe Goldhaber is a staff writer for the Daily Cardinal specializing in campus and state news reporting.