MILWAUKEE — U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson and Dem challenger Mandela Barnes exchanged a series of personal barbs on Thursday as the GOP incumbent referred to the lieutenant governor as a performer.

Barnes fired back that Johnson’s biggest achievement in business was “saying I do,” suggesting the senator’s in-laws set the stage for the business he once owned.

Johnson and Barnes took digs at each other in their opening statements as the senator said his opponent only has “hollow rhetoric.” The lieutenant governor called Johnson an out-of-touch politician.

Johnson later knocked Barnes’ college degree, referring to his Dem challenger misleading the public originally that he had graduated from Alabama A&M University. Jonson said there was “a lot of mystery” around Barnes’ degree and said it was unclear whether Barnes was delivering lines that someone had written for him or making it up on his own.

“Falsehoods just seem to roll off his tongue,” Johnson said, asking viewers to take what Barnes says with a grain of salt.

Barnes countered that Johnson was running from his record before his dig on Johnson’s former business, the plastics manufacturer PACUR. The company was a major supplier of his father-in-law’s business.

“He married into his business. He didn’t start it from the ground up,” Barnes said.

Johnson several times in the debate noted that he had created jobs, but Barnes hadn’t. 

That prompted Barnes to quip at one point, “He just took a whole lot of credit for his ‘business-in-law.’”

Johnson also took a shot at Barnes over the taxpayer-provided security he has received while lieutenant governor. Johnson said he fully understands the impact of the high cost of gas, saying he fills up his own gas tank and drives himself around unlike Barnes. He said Barnes is receiving protection from the State Patrol 13.5 hours a day, seven days a week.

“It’s not only excessive. It’s an abuse of taxpayer money,” Johnson said.

Barnes called it audacious for Johnson to say that without mentioning taxpayers have “footed the bill” for his trips between Washington, D.C. and a $3 million mansion in Florida. Barnes also noted Johnson’s adult children have purchased three planes since the 2017 GOP tax cut that Johnson backed and included tax breaks on such purchases.

“And we’re footing the bill for that,” Barnes said.

Johnson insisted that was a lie and he was reimbursed under Senate rules for travel between visiting his children in Florida and the U.S. Capitol. He said it was $5,000 vs. the more than $600,000 it cost taxpayers for Barnes’ security.

The two met in the second and final debate ahead of the Nov. 8 election just after the latest Marquette University Law School Poll showed Johnson with a 6-point lead, up 52-46. The debate was sponsored by WTMJ-TV,, the Wisconsin Business Journal and Marquette University. 

Moderators Charles Benson and Shannon Sims, both of WTMJ-TV, repeatedly asked the crowd to stop reacting to answers as the two candidates sparred.

Near the end of the hourlong debate, the moderators asked the candidates to say something nice about each other. But it only prompted another dig. Barnes said he respected Johnson’s commitment to his family. Johnson, likewise, said he appreciated Barnes’ upbringing by his parents, a teacher and a factory worker who worked third shift. Johnson then said, “What puzzles me is that, why with that upbringing has he turned his back on America?”

On other issues:

*The candidates were asked how far they were willing to go in support of Ukraine as it tried to fend off a Russian invasion. Barnes said the U.S. should do everything short of putting American boots on the ground. Johnson, meanwhile, said he wanted to see an accounting of what the U.S. has sent to Ukraine first and wished President Biden was “more concerned about defending every inch of U.S. territory against the invasion along the southern border.”

Barnes said Johnson once praised Russian President Vladimir Putin as a “smart guy” and had to be sat down by the FBI and warned that he may be a Russian asset. 

“We cannot trust Sen. Johnson to protect democracy abroad, because we cannot even trust Sen. Johnson to protect democracy at home,” Barnes said.

Johnson countered, “The FBI set me up with a corrupt briefing and then leaked that to smear me.”

*Barnes called Johnson “bought and paid for” by the gun lobby and charged that “he’s going to put their interests before the lives of our children.”

Barnes suggested, as a minimum, there should be universal background checks. 

Johnson said the best practice is to keep violent criminals in jail and to support law enforcement. He said Barnes and Gov. Tony Evers had a goal of reducing the prison population by half and blamed them for the release of hundreds of violent criminals. 

Barnes in response said Johnson supported a law that is shortening the prison sentences of thousands of people sentenced under laws targeting crack cocaine. 

“It’s hypocrisy,” Barnes said. “He’s attacking me for the same thing he’s doing.”

Johnson said the law was for nonviolent offenders and expects a report soon on the program.

*In response to a comment from Barnes on the Jan 6, 2021, U.S. Capitol attack, Johnson said he “forcefully and repeatedly condemned the violence on January 6,” while saying Barnes ignores the 2,000 law enforcement officers injured during unrest in 2020. He accused Barnes of inciting the Kenosha riots with his comments responding to the shooting of Jacob Blake, a 29-year-old Black man.

“Rather than sending the manpower, he incited two more nights of riots,” Johnson said. 

Barnes accused Johnson of minimizing the actions of the those who attacked the Capitol, saying he referred to as tourists and patriots, “the people who were beating up police officers at the United States Capitol, people that were there to protect him.”

“He said he wasn’t afraid. He said if they were Black Lives Matter he may have been afraid, but because they were the people he riled up, of course he wasn’t afraid,” he added. 

* On abortion, Barnes said he supports going back to the protections under Roe v. Wade, which he said worked for 50 years. He said Johnson supported eight different national abortion bans, including one without exceptions for rape, incest or the life of the mother. 

“That’s a position that’s too out of touch and extreme,” Barnes said. 

Johnson said the issue has been divisive for 50 years and reiterated his proposal for a binding referendum on abortion. 

“I can’t think of a better way of solving the problem once and for all where most people could accept the results,” he said.

He also accused Barnes of supporting abortion until birth. 

“The extreme position when it comes to abortion is the one the lieutenant governor proposed that would allow abortion up to the moment of birth,” Johnson said. “Think of that. That is not where Wisconsinites are.”

Barnes accused Johnson of fearmongering about late-term abortion, which he said should only happen in extreme circumstances. 

Watch the replay:

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