Classless: Why Ron Johnson got booed (loudly) at the final US Senate Debate

Republican U.S. Senate candidate Ron Johnson speaks during a televised debate Thursday, Oct. 13, 2022, in Milwaukee. (AP Photo/Morry Gash)

By Joe Zepecki

October 19, 2022

Incumbent Republican U.S. Senator Ron Johnson faced off with his Democratic challenger, Lieutenant Governor Mandela Barnes, in the second of two debates last week in Milwaukee. A spirited affair, it was the very last topic of the night that people are still talking about days later.

Moderator and WTMJ-4 reporter Charles Benson asked each candidate to share something they admired about their opponent. Barnes got the first response, and answered it in the spirit intended, saying, “The senator has proven to be a family man and that is admirable.” 

Johnson began in a similar vein, praising Barnes’ family upbringing with a nod to the Lt. Governor’s parents – a longtime public school teacher and third shift union worker – before veering into the fever swamps with what is surely the most disgusting, shameful, and classless answer ever given in a United States Senate debate in Wisconsin. 

“I guess what puzzles me about that is with that upbringing, why has he turned on America, and why does he find America awful,” said Johnson.

Johnson’s response isn’t just insulting, it’s clearly wrong, and demonstrates the very worst of our politics. There’s, to put it mildly, a lot going on here. Let’s break (some of) it down:

  • Barnes routinely tells audiences that “my story is only possible in America” – a reference to being born in one of the most troubled zip codes in America and today finding himself with a meaningful career fighting to make “better possible.” If that’s not love and appreciation for America, what is?
  • What Johnson seems to be referring to with the word “awful” is an out-of-context video clip circulated by far right MAGA Republicans in which Barnes discusses America’s founding, presumably pointing out that if you were a Black person in America at the time the Constitution was written you were only considered three fifths of a person and were likely enslaved – which is, in fact, “awful.”
  • We’ve all heard the old saying, ‘if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all’ (or some version of it). That was an option available to Senator Johnson last week. Instead he made a conscious choice to engage in the vilest form of political “discourse” there is. If you remember anything at all, remember that, Mr. Johnson chose to go there.

When the audience reacted with boos and jeers, they made a choice too. The difference between those choices of course, is theirs was defensible. Senator Johnson’s wasn’t. 


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