Wisconsin Lt. Gov. and Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Mandela Barnes participates in a televised Wisconsin Democratic U.S. Senate debate in Milwaukee, July 17, 2022. (AP Photo/Morry Gash, File)

Only one Democratic Senate candidate had a lead in the polls this summer but fell behind by autumn: Wisconsin’s Mandela Barnes.

In the FiveThirtyEight poll average, Barnes, Wisconsin’s Lieutenant Governor, was up by 4 percentage points through August and into early September. But following a barrage of ads accusing him of supporting efforts to defund the police and parole violent criminals, incumbent Republican Senator Ron Johnson now leads by 2 points.

Barnes can win. Slightly more surveyed voters hold an “unfavorable” impression of Johnson than a “favorable” one.

His challenge is to refocus the race on the former plastics-and-polyester manufacturer’s long record of extreme positions and disturbing statements. These include proposing to end Social Security as an entitlement and making the program subject to annual budget cuts, telling women to “move” if they don’t like the abortion laws in their state, falsely claiming Covid-19 vaccines were killing athletes, and admitting he “never felt threatened” by the January 6th insurrectionists but if “those were tens of thousands of Black Lives Matter and Antifa protesters, I might have been a little concerned.”  But Barnes can’t turn the tables on Johnson until he can stop the bleeding.

One strategy Barnes should not adopt is calling the two-term Republican and his allies racist, however true the charge may be.

National Republican Senatorial Committee ads depict Barnes amid graffiti-stained walls. His name and “Defund the Police” are drawn in a spray-paint style. Using a sinister tone, a female narrator labels Barnes “dangerous.” Direct mail from the Wisconsin Republican Party reportedly uses a filter to darken Barnes’ image.

Some Democratic state legislators and labor activists have called on Republicans to withdraw these ads. Picketers outside a recent Johnson campaign event chanted, “Hey ho, Ro Jo, those racist ads have got to go.”

However, the Barnes campaign itself has not leveled a charge of racism. When asked about the ads by the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, the campaign’s statement avoided the R-word: “Ron Johnson’s desperate attacks and outright lies won’t stop voters from holding him accountable for his efforts to rip away reproductive freedom, attacks on Social Security and Medicare and record of enriching himself and his wealthy donors.”

Why the restraint? It’s probably because Barnes and his strategists know that African American candidates have performed better when they don’t take the race bait.

In 2018, then-Republican Florida gubernatorial candidate Ron DeSantis told Sunshine State voters during an interview, “The last thing we need to do is to monkey this up by trying to embrace a socialist agenda,” Supporters of the African American Democratic nominee, Andrew Gillum, interpreted that as racist. The controversy drew attention to other DeSantis provocations. In a late October debate, Gillum sought to take advantage of this when he said, “I’m not calling [Ron] DeSantis a racist. I’m simply saying the racists believe he’s a racist” Progressive social media exploded in euphoria over the zinger. Yet DeSantis pulled out a narrow victory, despite consistently trailing in the polls.

On Election Day 2018, as Gillum’s strategy backfired and DeSantis was elected, two African American Democrats running in overwhelmingly white House districts where Trump won in 2016 overcame racist ad campaigns without using blunt confrontation. In an upstate New York district that includes the Catskills, Republicans tried to use old rap tracks by Democratic candidate Antonio Delgado—a Rhodes Scholar who had since become a lawyer—to argue that the Afro-Latino had “New York City values.” One attack ad deployed an image of a liquor store marquee that read, “We Accept Food Stamps.”  In a National Republican Campaign Committee ad, one white voter huffs: “Antonio Delgado would be fine in Los Angeles, maybe New York City [but] nobody talks like that around here.” (The district is 85 percent white.) The Democrat’s response: Ads with white voters, saying Delgado “gets us” and shares “our values.” Earlier this year, New York Governor Kathy Hochul appointed Delgado to be the state’s Lieutenant Governor, a position she vacated when she replaced Andrew Cuomo as governor. The two are likely to be returned to office this fall.

Similarly, Illinois’ Lauren Underwood, a registered nurse with two master’s degrees from Johns Hopkins, faced Republican attack ads that darkened her skin as she ran in a district that’s only 3.2 percent Black and includes exurbs and rural areas west of Chicago. But she ignored the low tactic and countered with spots in which, over images of white farmers and parents, she spoke of “our community.” After a narrow re-election in 2020, Underwood is now in a tight race to hold on to Illinois 14th District, once held by disgraced-and-convicted former House Speaker Denny Hastert.

Barnes also outfoxes Republican race-baiting by eschewing charges of racism. One spot features a retired white police officer who calls Barnes “the real deal” and assures Wisconsin voters that the former state representative “doesn’t want to defund the police. He’s very supportive of law enforcement.” In another spot, Barnes describes his working-class upbringing as he meets a racially mixed group of factory floor workers.

But Barnes has a tougher task in 2022 than Delgado and Underwood faced in 2018. The congressional aspirants ran against incumbent Republicans in the congressional majority. They could train rhetorical fire on one of the most unpopular legislative achievements of the Donald Trump presidency: a tax reform bill that disproportionately favored the wealthy and corporations. And not being in elective office yet, they didn’t have records to defend. Plus, 2018 was a strong Democratic year with the party picking up 41 House seats.

By contrast, Barnes is running against a two-term Republican incumbent, but not one currently in the Senate majority. Plus, Barnes is Lieutenant Governor, right hand to Democratic Governor Tony Evers, who faces a tough re-election fight. Barnes has a defensible record to defend, but the defense isn’t simple.

Wisconsin Republicans have portrayed the Democratic administration in Madison as willingly and wantonly springing dangerous criminals from the clink. Campaigning in 2018, Evers and Barnes vowed to cut the population of Wisconsin’s overcrowded prisons by half. A Barnes clip from the 2018 campaign trail, in which he said, “reducing prison populations is now sexy,” has become a giddy staple in Republican attack ads as he tries to win a U.S. Senate seat. Republicans have also blistered the Evers-Barnes administration’s paroling of hundreds of felons, including some convicted of homicide and child sex abuse.

But prison policy in the Evers administration is—surprise, surprise—more complicated than Johnson and the Republicans would have Wisconsinites believe.

Despite Democratic promises, the prison population was not cut in half, but only by 15%, And that drop was driven mainly by the decline in prison admissions during the lockdown phase of the pandemic. Between Evers’ inauguration in 2019 and the start of the pandemic in 2020, the state’s prison population barely declined—from 24,064 to 23,167.  (If anything, the Left should be hollering that Evers and Barnes overpromised, then the Right has for lampooning them as being soft on crime.)

Neither Evers nor Barnes is directly responsible for the decisions of the Wisconsin Parole Commission. But early in his term, Evers appointed a commission chair, John Tate, who promised a compassionate approach to parole, saying, “Hardness or softness on crime should have no relevance on whether we believe that there is redemption for individuals.” The comments were not terribly controversial, and the Republican-controlled Wisconsin Senate confirmed him.

But last June, when Tate approved parole for a man who had served 25 of an 80-year sentence for murdering his wife, the deceased’s family stoked public outrage. Evers responded by chastising the decision and pressuring Tate to resign.

Tate’s departure hasn’t stopped Republicans from fudging statistics to charge Evers with recklessly releasing violent criminals. In the anti-Barnes ad “Prisoners” from the NRSC, the narrator speaks as if the 35-year-old Lieutenant Governor himself made the parole decisions. After the Barnes “sexy” clip, the narrator says, “he’s talking about releasing violent criminals,” and “his administration has already paroled 884 convicted criminals … over 200 murderers, 44 child rapists.”

But Barnes doesn’t make parole decisions. Nor was Barnes talking about freeing violent criminals when he proposed broadly shrinking the prison population. In 2020, Barnes said, “we have a responsibility to reduce our prison population because there’s still too many people who are behind bars for nonviolent offenses.” (Emphasis added.)

And the Evers administration is hardly the first to parole violent offenders. That’s mandated by Wisconsin law. Generally speaking, those convicted of crimes before 2000 who have served two-thirds of a non-life sentence are automatically paroled. Beyond that, the parole commission makes discretionary decisions, with ultimate authority held by the chair. However, there is no parole for those convicted after 1999, limiting it as a means to reduce the prison population.

According to the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, the Evers administration has paroled 593 inmates convicted of violent crimes. But during the two-term tenure of Scott Walker, Evers’ pugnaciously conservative predecessor, 774 violent criminals were paroled. The annual rate under Evers may be higher, but Walker’s administration still paroled about 100 violent criminals a year without any complaint from U.S. Senator Ron Johnson. Moreover, of those prisoners who received discretionary paroles under Evers, only 16% “have absconded, been accused of new crimes, or were sent back to prison.” Under Walker, that figure was a whopping 81%. If parole is bad because parolees reoffend, where was the Republican outrage in the previous decade?

Of course, if fact-checks about parole statistics were politically sufficient, Michael Dukakis might have been elected America’s 41st president. Like the anti-Barnes ads today, the infamous anti-Dukakis “Willie Horton” ads of 1988 are visceral. Fueled by racist tropes, they make an opponent’s values and aspirations seem grotesquely antithetical to common sense. Gut emotion is kryptonite to fact checks.

If the wounded candidate wants to recover, breezily asserting the attacks are false and asking voters to trust that they have shared values won’t cut it.

Barnes faces a challenge steeper than that faced by Delgado and Underwood. He has to neutralize ads that use his own words. He has to defend himself without getting defensive. And with one month to go, he has to do it quickly so he can get back on offense and put Johnson’s values on trial.

That’s why Mandela Barnes may be in the toughest spot of any 2022 Senate battleground candidate.

Bill Scher

Bill Scher is political writer at the Washington Monthly. He is the host of the history podcast When America Worked and the cohost of the bipartisan online show and podcast The DMZ. Follow Bill on Twitter @BillScher.