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Wisconsin Senate candidate Mandela Barnes on abortion, onslaught of GOP advertising


The Senate race in Wisconsin is one of a handful that could determine which party controls the U.S. Senate. Over the summer, incumbent Republican Ron Johnson looked vulnerable to a challenge by Democrat Mandela Barnes. But now, polling shows that Barnes is trailing Johnson, with just two weeks to go until Election Day. I sat down with Lieutenant Governor Barnes after a meet-and-greet with Latino voters in Milwaukee. And when I asked him about the momentum in this race, he didn't seem worried.

MANDELA BARNES: Polls go up, and polls go down. Last three November elections were all decided by 30,000 votes or fewer. We always knew this was going to be neck-and-neck.

SUMMERS: After that, we dug into the issues, starting with the Supreme Court's decision in June to overturn the constitutional right to an abortion.

BARNES: Well, 70% of people in Wisconsin think Roe should be the law of the land, and that's how out-of-touch and extreme Ron Johnson's position is. And he supported abortion bans that had no exceptions for rape, incest or the life of the mother. And I've been - you know, my mother has been pretty open about her story, having a complicated pregnancy that, you know, she had to end. And it was her choice to make. Any woman should be able to make that choice. And Ron Johnson wants to take that away. In Ron Johnson's America, my mother - women in very similar situations as her don't get to make that choice. We recently had a Black maternal health roundtable, where there were a number of women who, for the very first time, shared their stories about complicated pregnancies, some that had to be terminated. And they had never spoken about it before, but they had a chance to around each other - and also, given the urgency of this moment, where we have politicians in office who want to take that choice away, which would have absolutely made their lives even more difficult.

And then, on top of that, for people who are planning a family, Ron Johnson is against expanding the child tax credit. He is against funding for preschool programs. He is against school meal programs - the things that will make it easier for people to have families that can have some sort of success. He voted to repeal the Affordable Care Act, and this is a lifeline for families - that he wants to take it away. He wants to force people to give birth in a place where he does not want to provide them opportunity, and that's disqualifying.

SUMMERS: I want to turn now to the economy, which is obviously something that's affecting every person in this country. Inflation has been unrelenting. We have seen the stock market decline. What do you think, if you were elected - what can be done to help families who are feeling the brunt of those issues?

BARNES: Well, there are a couple of things we got to do. One, we got to give working families some relief in the immediate term. That means middle-class tax cuts. We can expand the earned income tax credit for our lower-wage earners to be able to keep a little bit more money in their pockets - people who are struggling to put food on the table. We need to make the child tax credit permanent. And we also need to hold these executives and industries accountable for using inflation as a smokescreen to jack up prices on consumers. Think about the people who are charging the most. These are also the people are having record years - record profit years - and working-class people are paying for that. That's the unfortunate reality that is only going to be exacerbated if people like Ron Johnson are in office because he's only been in it for himself, other wealthy individuals like him and his biggest donors. In the long term, we need to do more to bring jobs back here.

SUMMERS: Senator Johnson has focused a great deal of his attention on the issue of crime, and there has been this onslaught of advertising that has labeled you as too liberal on issues of crime and public safety - something that we're seeing in races across the country. As you've watched these ads, what is your reaction to them, and do you believe that they play on racial tropes?

BARNES: Ron Johnson is a hypocrite. Ron Johnson has not done a single thing. I have dealt with the loss of life. I don't - I brought this up on the debate stage - didn't get an answer. I can only assume that Ron Johnson never had to bury a friend. I can only assume Ron Johnson has not gone to these funerals and memorial services for young children who are victims of gun violence. Representing a district in the state legislature that had been significantly impacted by violence - it seemed to be routine to have to do that.

Ron Johnson has no idea what he's talking about. He only brings up Milwaukee when he talks about crime, but he's never shown up to try to help. He has prioritized the interests and the profits of the gun lobby over the lives of our children and our public safety. He can talk all about - all he wants to about law and order and about law enforcement. He was nowhere to be found on January 6, when 140 Capitol police officers were injured - the people who were there to protect him. He turned his back on law enforcement. He turned his back on all of us.

SUMMERS: You're about to kick off a big tour of the states, and one of the big names that's coming out here to campaign for you is former President Barack Obama. I know he's recently cut an ad for you. I'd like to ask you, would you welcome President Biden to the campaign trail with you in the final days of this race?

BARNES: Well, we've always said from the very beginning, people who are talking about rebuilding the middle class here in Wisconsin is more than welcome to join us. And, you know, when I heard Barack Obama's DNC speech in 2004, that's what inspired me to get engaged. That's what led me to become an organizer. So this is a sort of full-circle moment for me.

SUMMERS: But would you campaign with President Biden?

BARNES: Like I said, President Biden - anybody who wants to come talk about rebuilding the middle class - we're happy to do it. I mean, we've had a number of people come in the state. So Biden is welcome if we're talking about the same exact things.

SUMMERS: All right, Lieutenant Governor Mandela Barnes, thank you so much for talking with us today.

BARNES: Of course. Thank you so much. Thanks for having me.

SUMMERS: And just as a note for listeners - we did reach out to Senator Ron Johnson's campaign for an interview, and they did not make him available. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Juana Summers is a political correspondent for NPR covering race, justice and politics. She has covered politics since 2010 for publications including Politico, CNN and The Associated Press. She got her start in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Mo., and also previously covered Congress for NPR.