Speed Reads

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GOP Sen. Ron Johnson debates challenger Mandela Barnes in Milwaukee, draws boos, laughs

Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) and his Democratic challenger, Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes, held their second and final debate in Milwaukee on Thursday night. It was a pugnacious affair near the end of a tight race.

Barnes tried to paint Johnson as an out-of-touch millionaire who owes his fortune to "his business-in-law," the plastics company started by his wife's family. Johnson aimed to portray Barnes as an "actor" with limited private-sector job experience. They accused each other of wasting taxpayer money — Barnes on his security detail, Johnson on flights to his second home in Florida — sparred over who is more disrespectful to law enforcement, and drew largely symbolic lines on abortion rights.

The debate also featured a relatively substantive debate on Social Security and Medicare, focused on Johnson's proposal to make the popular entitlements part of the regular budget, to be authorized (or not) every year. "I want to save Social Security. I want to save Medicare," Johnson said. "I never said I wanted to cut or put Social Security on the chopping block." Barnes responded that Johnson "talks about making Social Security discretionary spending. That means he's coming for your retirement." 

Both candidates supported arming Ukraine against Russia, Johnson with more caveats, and Barnes reminded viewers that the FBI had to warn Johnson in 2020 that the Kremlin was trying to turn him into a "Russian asset" — after Johnson returned from a 2018 visit to Moscow suggesting the U.S. rethink its sanctions, and popped up repeatedly in former President Donald Trump's efforts to pressure Ukraine to find dirt on Democrats in exchange for U.S. arms.  

"The FBI set me up with a corrupt — with a corrupt briefing, and then leaked that to smear me," Johnson said, drawing laughs from the audience. Barnes "is referring to corruption at the FBI, which I have been trying to uncover and expose." The FBI setup line is "common fare in right-wing media but impenetrable for most others," Reid Epstein explains at The New York Times

At the end of the debate, both candidates were invited to say something they admire about their opponent. Johnson's reply earned boos.

Laughs and jeers notwithstanding, neither candidate "committed any significant errors," and the debate is "unlikely to change the course of the election," Epstein writes. And that benefits Johnson, "who has risen in the polls as he and his allies have launched the most expensive TV ad campaign in Wisconsin's history."