Wisconsin voters urge Barnes over singular focus on abortion
WEST ALLIS, Wis.—Wisconsin Democratic Senate candidate Mandela Barnes was shaking hands with supporters at a campaign event outside Milwaukee on Wednesday when a middle-aged man wearing a veteran’s jacket Vietnam fighter approached him with unsolicited advice: Talk more about inflation.
“How many Democrats have I heard of this? Zero,” the frustrated man told the Democratic candidate.
“I appreciate the advice,” Barnes said politely. Then he quickly ignored it, walking to the back of the room and delivering a speech focused on the same topic his campaign hammered relentlessly in the final weeks of the election: abortion.
Wisconsin Democrats bet Supreme Court ruling overturns deer v. Wade will both energize their base and train new supporters concerned about abortion restrictions. Barnes fully embraced this strategy, making unrestricted abortion his main closing argument in his competitive run against Senator Ron Johnson.
But the narrow focus also carries a big risk, according to political watchers, who say undecided, independent voters — those who determine elections in swing states like Wisconsin — are much more concerned about issues like inflation and schools than through abortion.
“I understand [abortion] be a grassroots issue that will help drive turnout, but you’re still leaving a segment of voters who are likely to be the ones deciding who’s the next governor, who’s the next U.S. senator,” said Keith Gilkes, a Republican strategist from Wisconsin “They’re worried about crime, they’re worried about inflation, the economy, and are we heading into a recession.”
Gilkes said he thinks Democrats were making a similar mistake to Republicans in 2006, when the party campaigned on a statewide referendum against same-sex marriage, which passed but lost the votes. gubernatorial and Senate races in the process.
“We haven’t made it easy on ourselves … spending all of our time focusing on culture war issues, as opposed to the broader concerns of the electorate about health care, the economy and the recession,” said Gilkes.
In Wisconsin, the all-abortion strategy has yet to pay off for Democrats. Barnes is now trailing Johnson by 6 points, according to a Marquette Law School poll this week, a change from September, when the Democrat trailed by just one point.
While Democratic voters see abortion as the election’s most pressing issue, that view is not shared by other groups, according to the Marquette poll. Likely voters, including independents and women voters, say they are more concerned about inflation, schools and gun violence.
This gap in enthusiasm between the progressive base and more moderate voters was evident during Barnes’ “Ron Against Roe” tour this week. In the deep blue of Milwaukee last weekend, more than 100 energetic fans gathered in a small high school gymnasium to hear Barnes speak alongside Alexis McGill Johnson, the head of Planned Parenthood.
The political arm of Planned Parenthood, which helped organize the event, poured millions into midterm races to help elect Democrats. Organizers with clipboards stood at the entrance, trying to recruit attendees to survey neighborhoods with pro-Barnes literature.
The speakers did not pretend to try to seduce the moderates. “When Ron Johnson talks about ‘freedom,’ he’s talking about rich old white guys,” the leader of a group called Moms for Mandela announced to the cheering crowd. Democratic Rep. Gwen Moore, who represents most of Milwaukee, read an unflattering poem about Johnson – ‘He’s an insurrectionist. / A Donald Trump worshiper’ – before leading the audience in a chant from “RoJo Gotta Go”.
Barnes took the stage and called for an end to Senate filibuster rules — an idea popular among progressives but opposed by the vast majority of Americans, according to vote.
“This zero-seat majority [for Democrats] is not enough. If we get rid of Ron Johnson, if we get more Senate seats, we can get rid of the filibuster,” Barnes said to applause.
Such messages are less likely to resonate in places like West Allis, a moderate working-class Democratic town just east of Milwaukee, where Hillary Clinton beat Donald Trump by just 3 points in 2016.
On Wednesday, Barnes’ “Ron Against Roe” tour stopped at a no-frills West Allis sports bar, hosted by a much smaller group of a few dozen supporters and far less fanfare.
At the Pallas restaurant, there was no talk of “old whites” or ending the filibuster. Democratic Senator Tammy Baldwin introduced Barnes softly, saying he would be a “partner in the United States Senate who cares deeply about us and understands us.”
Barnes took aim at Johnson’s values, arguing that Republican opposition to abortion “doesn’t really represent who we are as a state.” But while his speech was more low-key, he still remained narrowly focused on the issue of abortion.
Shanon Frakes, a Vietnam War veteran who attended the event, told the Free Washington Beacon that he would like to hear the Lieutenant Governor talk more about inflation.
“You don’t hear any Democrats talking about this,” said Frakes, who has described himself as a swing voter over the years.
“I was a Republican, [now] I’m a Democrat, but I’m really independent,” Frakes said.
Nikki Bender and Shari Young, two Barnes supporters from nearby Wauwatosa, told the Free tag that they hope the abortion issue will be effective in attracting new voters for Barnes.
“I don’t think that’s the only progressive issue we’re talking about. But I think it’s a motor issue,” Young said. “An entire generation of men and women grew up assuming their reproductive choice rights were in place and guaranteed, and finding out that’s no shock to a very large number of young people who I think , will get people out.”
But even Bender, who sees deer v. Wade as “one of the biggest issues” in the race, said it would be nice to hear the Barnes campaign address issues other than abortion. When she welcomed Barnes at the event, she asked him to talk more about economic inequality without demonizing the wealthy.
“I know you kinda say that [already]”, Bender told Barnes. “But I want to hear the words that say it: ‘We don’t hate you because you’re rich.'”
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