Johnson/Barnes illustration

Our state’s race for the U.S. Senate this fall will be as closely watched — and probably as negative — as any in the nation.

That’s because even fellow Republicans are shaking their heads at Ron Johnson, the two-term incumbent, and his many fantastical, detached-from-reality pronouncements. No amount of Republican “independent expenditures” (outside money from undisclosed donors) can rehabilitate and normalize his image.

Johnson has morphed from a prototypical millionaire Republican focused on tax cuts into his tinfoil-hat persona of today, a guy who discounts COVID vaccines, the Jan. 6 insurrection and doubts Joe Biden actually won.

The only logical play his backers have is a torrent of negative ads to try to disqualify Mandela Barnes, the Democratic nominee. They will likely be as distorted and probably racially tinged as any in our lifetimes, which is quite a standard.

In truth, Barnes is an energetic, charismatic, middle-class guy from Milwaukee who rose to become lieutenant governor as a mainstream liberal, not as a radical.

Barnes’ pre-primary ads effectively introduced him as being in touch with average people. One shows him pushing a grocery cart and saying he knows the cost of a gallon of milk, unlike his wealthy primary foes and certainly unlike Johnson.

In the general election, it may seem appealing for Barnes to attack Johnson for the kind of behavior that generated this recent headline on a New York Times column by Michelle Cottle: “Why is Ron Johnson Still Competitive Despite, You Know, Everything?” Johnson “may be the senator who most fully embodies … MAGA-world,” she wrote. “His irrational and irresponsible conspiracy mongering about matters such as the Covid vaccine, the integrity of the 2020 election and who was really behind the Jan 6 riots (has) unsettled even some of his Republican colleagues.”

But focusing on that, say prominent Democratic strategists I spoke with recently, would be the wrong path. The right path will be to shine a light on how Johnson has betrayed his constituents by catering solely to the wealthy.

One strategist put it this way: Barnes “has to make clear that he understands the challenges working people face, and then put it into a powerhouse counterpunch, which is that Ron Johnson has been looking out for himself and his wealthy donors at every turn, and whether you’re a Democrat, a Republican, an independent, whether you hate politics, whether you’re white, Black, brown, you’ve probably been ripped off by Ron Johnson in order to enrich his billionaire donors.”

In 2017, Johnson withheld support for then-President Trump’s huge tax-cut bill not because it served the wealthy over regular people, which it did, but apparently because it did not do enough for two of his major Wisconsin donors. Johnson got his way and, having pledged not to seek a third term, probably thought it wouldn’t ever matter politically.

A ProPublica investigation reported that “Johnson’s last-minute maneuver benefited two families more than almost any others in the country — both worth billions and both among the senator’s biggest donors.

“Dick and Liz Uihlein of packaging giant Uline, along with roofing magnate Diane Hendricks, together had contributed around $20 million to groups backing Johnson’s 2016 reelection campaign,” the report said. “The expanded tax break Johnson muscled through netted them $215 million in deductions in 2018 alone, drastically reducing the income they owed taxes on.”

Another Democratic strategist agreed attacks on Barnes should be met by pointing out the stains on Johnson’s record. “It’s the old sports metaphor. He’s doing the right thing so far as an introduction and grounding as (Democratic U.S. Sen. Tammy) Baldwin did in 2012. But the best defense is a good offense. Make the election about the other guy.”

For Democrats who worry about Barnes’ electability as a former community organizer and an African American in an overwhelmingly white state, consider this. Since 2008, one strategist noted, Democratic candidates who were straight white men and women have lost six of eight elections in Wisconsin for president, governor and the U.S. Senate. (Gov. Tony Evers in 2018 and President Biden in 2020 were the exceptions.)

Meanwhile, African American and gay candidates have won four and lost none — twice each by Barack Obama and Baldwin.

I also asked strategists how angst-ridden Democrats, the kind jammed into deep blue Madison and Dane County, should cope with the GOP ad barrage to come.

By recognizing reality, one responded.

“As to coping, we passed that bridge a long time ago in this country. Our society and politics are pretty much f------ for the time being. This (fall) will be an ugly campaign season in an ever-increasing string of them …. But (that’s) no shock and surprise to voters. The key thing for my side is for people to rise above all the insanity and realize their vote counts. The Supreme Court and the (Jan. 6) hearings and the ongoing threat to democracy give us powerful ways to ensure that they do.”

The other strategist suggested Wisconsin Democrats should interpret this fall’s ad barrage as a positive indication of just how important they are.

“The thing to remember is that in Wisconsin, almost uniquely in the United States and almost uniquely in history, a tiny number of votes can sway statewide elections that wind up changing the game for the entire country.

“Over and over and over, we have some of the closest elections anyone’s ever seen, and that means that every Wisconsin voter has a superpower. If you don’t like the way things are going, you can do something about it,” unlike people who live in states that are deep blue or deep red.

So Barnes should make the election about his understanding and embrace of middle-class pocketbook issues and his supporters should keep reminding themselves of their “superpowers.” That means they should be energized to volunteer, donate and vote.

Makes sense to me.

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