Early voting has begun in Wisconsin, where Democratic Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes hopes to unseat Republican Sen. Ron Johnson. The contest has been fierce, with Barnes polling ahead of the incumbent until September.
The two are opposites in nearly every way. Barnes, 35, is a Black native of Milwaukee, unmarried, modestly paid, and was first elected to state legislature at 25 years old. Johnson, 67, is a white Minnesota native, married with three children, and a multimillionaire from his former job as the CEO of a polyester and plastics manufacturing company.
Barnes has been outspoken about abortion rights; Johnson, about banning it outright and jailing doctors who provide them. Barnes has advocated for making voting more accessible and curbing dark money in politics; Johnson was involved in efforts to thwart the certification of the 2020 presidential election — and discount the will of the voters in Wisconsin — and has launched a website where Wisconsinites can report fraud in the upcoming election.
Barnes says he favors cutting taxes for the middle class, lowering the cost of prescription drugs and increasing affordable childcare. Johnson voted against lowering the cost of prescription drugs for Medicaid patients. The senator notoriously held out his vote for Donald Trump‘s tax cut plan until “pass-through” business were included — benefiting himself and, as ProPublica reported, disproportionately benefiting two of his biggest donors.
Wisconsin voters aren’t particularly enthusiastic about Johnson. In June, his favorability rating sat around 37%. But as support for Barnes grew, along with the possibility of losing a Republican in the Senate, GOP donors poured millions of dollars into the race.
Negative ads stirring fear of the lieutenant governor painted the man, who would be the first Black senator from the state, as soft on crime. Now Barnes is slipping in polls.
Margins are typically thin in Wisconsin. Voters in the state are famously split between the parties, and stoking fear as the race appeared neck and neck may have seemed like the quickest way to stem Barnes’ ascendance.
“If you’re in a statistical tie, strategically you are going to do everything you can,” says Paru Shah, professor of political science at University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee, who concentrates on politics and race.
So GOP groups leaned hard into the crime narrative, in one ad depicting an attack committed by Darrell Brooks Jr. — the Wisconsin man who plowed his SUV through a Christmas parade and killed six people while out on bail — then suggesting that Barnes’ efforts to overhaul the state’s bail system would lead to more violence like it.
It’s true that Barnes has advocated to eliminate cash bail, but as fact-checking site Politifact notes, his 2016 proposal on the matter included a statute allowing judges to deny alleged criminals release if evidence suggests they’re a public safety threat. (Barnes has not defended Brooks at any point; when the attacker was found guilty by a jury on Wednesday, Barnes said he’s “grateful that justice has been served.”)
The same ad flashes “different” on the screen beneath Barnes’ name, and shows him in full color in front of notable minority congresswomen in black and white. It then flashes the word “dangerous.”
Republicans’ focus on Barnes being “different” and “dangerous” has been lambasted as racist, a claim further supported by a pro-Johnson mailer delivered to voters that appears to have added a filter to darken Barnes’ skin. In a state that’s 86.6% white, the racist undertones come off especially sinister.
“[It’s] a statewide race in a place like Wisconsin, where the overlap of racial identity and political identity is very strong,” Shah says.
One group called out the targeted ads and chided Sen. Johnson for not disavowing them. “They spread factual inaccuracies about Barnes’ stance on policing and eliminating cash bail,” says Calena Roberts, a field director with Service Employees International Union Wisconsin. “Johnson has remained steadily silent on the series of racist ads released on his behalf.” The union protested in front of the Milwaukee GOP headquarters last month.
Shah says recent surveys found the top three concerns among Republican voters are inflation, accurate vote count and taxes; for Democrats they’re gun violence, abortion policy and climate change. “Crime isn’t on anybody’s top three,” she notes.
Making the race about crime aims to motivate white Republicans to get to the polls and feel it’s the only way to prevent violence from reaching their doorstep. Research has shown that the strategy works, Shah says.
Never miss a story — sign up for PEOPLE’s free daily newsletter to stay up-to-date on the best of what PEOPLE has to offer.
Barnes did defend himself from attacks against his crime policy, calling them lies, and took a shot at Johnson, alleging the Republican is “dangerous” for plotting to send fake electors to stop Joe Biden from being certified as president. Johnson pushed back on that assertion in a debate, claiming he had no knowledge of what he’d be handing to the vice president on Jan. 6, 2021.
Johnson previously, however, told a reporter that the insurrectionists who stormed the U.S. Capitol were “patriots” who “would never do anything to break a law.” He said had Donald Trump won the election and the protesters were Black Lives Matter and Antifa groups, “I might have been a little concerned.”
Wisconsin is a swing state through and through. Currently, Wisconsin’s governor is a Democrat, while the state legislature is majority Republican. The other U.S. Senate seat is held by a progressive Democrat, yet the state has five Republicans in the U.S. House and only three Democrats.
Since Wisconsin Sen. Joe McCarthy — the Republican who went down in history books for snuffing out supposed Communists in the 1950s — died in office, the state’s voters have elected five Democrats and only two Republicans to the U.S. Senate. Johnson, elected in 2010 and reelected in 2016, originally said he would not seek a third term, but changed his mind.
Former President Barack Obama, who knows better than anyone about racism creeping into political campaigns, has endorsed Barnes. He made an ad supporting the lieutenant governor and is scheduled to appear with Barnes on Saturday in Milwaukee in an effort to energize voters.
Barnes says Obama’s 2004 speech to the Democratic National Committee convinced him that he could run for office too.