FILE - Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., the ranking member of the Senate Permanent Subcommittee On Investigations, speaks as the panel holds a hearing at the Capitol in Washington, July 26, 2022.  (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, File)
FILE - Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., the ranking member of the Senate Permanent Subcommittee On Investigations, speaks as the panel holds a hearing at the Capitol in Washington, July 26, 2022. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, File)

In an effort to obscure his unpopular record, Sen. Ron Johnson and his allies have run a barrage of misleading, racist TV ads distorting Mandela Barnes’ record on criminal justice to convince voters Barnes is responsible for a surge in crime. 

Can a senator who has threatened Social Security and Medicare, bragged about the repeal of Roe v. Wade, passed a tax cut to enrich his billionaire donors, and voted to take health care away from Wisconsinites be reelected to a third term, despite delivering little help to his middle- and working-class constituents?

Republican Ron Johnson is banking on it, and over the past month, it’s become apparent what his campaign and his allies view as Johnson’s golden ticket back to Washington: a racist, fear-mongering ad campaign designed to scare voters away from his opponent, Democrat Mandela Barnes.

These cartoonishly dystopian and misleading ads have distorted Barnes’ record on criminal justice and crime—as well as his skin tone—to make sure voters know that Barnes is Black, convince them he’s extreme, persuade them he’s responsible for the surge in crime during the pandemic, and to present Johnson as the candidate who will keep them safe.

To be clear, crime is an issue in Wisconsin, as murders and other violent crimes increased during the pandemic, but they increased everywhere, all across the country, in Democratic- and Republican-led states alike, in places with Black and white leaders alike—facts conveniently ignored by Johnson and his allies.

The anti-Barnes ads exploit a real fear that exists within all of us: the safety of our loved ones. Everyone wants their family to be safe, secure, and free from the dangers of violent crime—it’s a basic value shared by all. Politicians and their strategists know this, and they know fear-mongering about crime can be a potent weapon. 

The ads—which have already been debunked as misleading—are virulently racist and a blatant effort to scare voters by linking Barnes to crime, but they also serve another purpose: distracting from the issues where Johnson’s stances are unpopular and could actually increase crime.

The increase in murders during the pandemic was driven almost entirely by a surge in gun-related homicides. In fact, 74% of all murders in Wisconsin are gun-related, according to a 2021 report from Everytown for Gun Safety. 

And yet, Johnson has opposed virtually every gun safety bill introduced during his 12 years in the Senate, including a universal background checks proposal. Johnson’s opposition comes despite a large body of data showing that more guns lead to more gun deaths.

In contrast, Barnes supports gun safety laws and has been open about how gun violence has personally impacted his life.

“We need to do the work to stop crime, put violent criminals in jail, and get the illegal guns off the street,” Barnes said in a campaign video. “But it’s time we also did the work to prevent crime in the first place. Because when our communities don’t have opportunity, gun violence and crime is what fills the void. Rebuilding the middle class is how we make our communities safer. That means investing in good-paying jobs, education, and child care.”

Barnes has pledged to cut taxes for the middle-class, raise taxes on the wealthiest Americans, expand domestic manufacturing, crack down on Big Ag monopolies, increase the minimum wage to $15 per hour, and fight to make sure that no family spends more than 7% of their income on child care. 

Barnes also supports universal pre-kindergarten programs, a stark contrast with Johnson, who has gone on record saying that it’s not “society’s responsibility to take care of other people’s children” and that the government should not provide assistance to help parents get affordable childcare.

Barnes has also vowed to do everything he can to restore women’s reproductive freedom and access to abortion. Johnson, meanwhile, opposes abortion rights and celebrated the demise of Roe v. Wade, even though a significant amount of research shows that abortion bans make women less safe.

The Republican incumbent also opposed the Inflation Reduction Act, a recently-passed law that will lower the cost of prescription drugs for Wisconsin seniors and lower the cost of healthcare for hundreds of thousands of Wisconsinites who get their insurance through the Affordable Care Act. Access to healthcare has been shown to reduce crime, but Johnson opposed a law that will help 43,000 people in the commonwealth keep their insurance.

Johnson also voted to repeal the Affordable Care Act altogether in 2017, even as it would’ve ripped healthcare away from hundreds of thousands of Wisconsinites. Earlier this year, Johnson said Republicans should once again consider repealing and replacing the landmark healthcare law if they take back control of the federal government in 2024.

Johnson is also on record saying that he believes Social Security and Medicare should not be guaranteed—as they currently are—and should instead be negotiated by Congress every single year. During an interview on the Regular Joe Show this summer, Johnson argued that mandatory programs like Social Security and Medicare should be reformed and fall under “discretionary spending”—which means Congress could cut funding for them or eliminate them altogether.

More than 1.2 million seniors in Wisconsin rely on Social Security and Medicare to help ensure their well-being as they age and to help them afford the rising cost of living—and in many cases, keep them out of poverty. Research shows that social welfare programs like Social Security reduce crime and yet Johnson supports treating the program for seniors as a “political football,” as one Milwaukee senior put it. 

Crime is a real problem, and the solutions to it are complex. But rather than propose serious ideas to address some of the root causes of crime by expanding access to healthcare, housing, and raising the minimum wage, the Johnson campaign has resorted to fear-mongering tactics designed to scare voters away from his opponent and distract from his own unpopular stances.

If their strategy pays off, Johnson will serve a third term in the Senate and could prove a decisive vote to cut taxes for billionaires and corporations, ban abortion nationwide, repeal the Affordable Care Act, and block gun safety laws, affordable childcare, and efforts to lower healthcare costs—all under the pretense of keeping his constituents “safe.”