Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson wins reelection, holding off Democratic challenge

Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson won reelection Tuesday night, the Associated Press projected Wednesday, dashing Democratic hopes of flipping the swing-state seat.

Johnson defeated Democratic Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes to earn a third term, despite an early polling deficit and a litany of controversial positions. After trailing by as many as 7 points in August polling, Johnson battered Barnes over the airwaves in September to eliminate the gap, attacking him for his positions on crime. Johnson supplemented that message with critiques of President Biden’s policies on inflation and the southern border in the race’s final weeks.

The nonpartisan Cook Political Report had rated the race as a toss-up, and FiveThirtyEight’s final aggregate polling showed Johnson ahead by a margin of 3.3 points.

With the victory in Wisconsin, Republicans pulled even with Democrats in the ongoing contest to decide which party will control the U.S. Senate, with each having secured 48 seats. Races in Arizona, Nevada and Georgia have yet to be decided.

Wisconsin Democrats lamented that the national party and Barnes’s campaign did not respond to the attacks quickly enough.

Johnson presented a number of potential vulnerabilities for Democrats to exploit, but just as in his surprise reelection victory six years ago, the conservative businessman survived.

Sen. Ron Johnson at a rally in Waukesha, Wis.
Sen. Ron Johnson at a rally in Waukesha, Wis., on Oct. 25. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)

Johnson had called the Jan. 6, 2021, Capitol riot a largely “peaceful protest” by people “who loved this country” and “truly [respected] law enforcement.” He was also criticized for employing a woman who falsely claimed to be an elector.

He also spread so many conspiracies about COVID-19 and vaccines that his YouTube account was briefly suspended, has suggested broad changes to Social Security, was caught on camera calling climate change “bulls***” and said earlier this year that Wisconsin has “enough jobs.”

The ads from Johnson and his allies attacked Barnes’s proposal for bail reform and his efforts to reduce the prison population. They also called him a “defund-the-police Democrat” and superimposed his name over footage of a crime scene. Crime has emerged as a major issue in Wisconsin; the state’s largest city, Milwaukee, has seen a steep rise in homicides since the beginning of the pandemic.

Barnes has said he doesn’t support defunding but has stated that parts of police budgets could be distributed to other community safety programs. He has also implied support for abolishing or defunding U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Johnson’s ads aligned the lieutenant governor — who would have been the state’s first Black senator — with the Democratic congresswomen often referred to as “the Squad,” progressives who are frequently demonized in right-wing media, despite the fact they have not campaigned with him. “I’m not running for the Senate to join the Squad or any group of lawmakers,” Barnes said in August.

In his final hours of campaigning, Democratic candidate Mandela Barnes greets workers outside of the Molson Coors plant in Milwaukee on Tuesday.
In his final hours of campaigning, Democratic candidate Mandela Barnes greets workers outside of the Molson Coors plant in Milwaukee on Tuesday. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)

Barnes’s supporters protested the ads as racist and called on Johnson to pull them. They also protested a mailer from the state Republican Party that darkened Barnes’s skin. The Johnson campaign responded by calling the accusations of racism “absurd,” and Johnson himself told a Milwaukee radio host in September that Democrats were “playing the race card” in responding to his ads.

In an October debate, Johnson said Barnes had “a record of wanting to defund the police. And I know he doesn’t necessarily say that word, but he has a long history of being supported by people that are leading the effort to defund.”

Last month, Barnes attempted to shift the race to targeting Johnson’s anti-abortion positions, holding a number of “Ron Against Roe” events. Former President Barack Obama recorded an ad endorsing Barnes and headlined a rally for him and other top Democrats in Milwaukee on Oct. 29.

However, it wasn’t enough to get Barnes over the finish line in a state that’s emerged as a top political battleground.