I moved to Wisconsin in June and have seen a nonstop barrage of political ads since. Not only is the Badger State purple—having gone for Donald Trump by less than a point in 2016 and Joe Biden by less than a point in 2020—but it also hosted the Kenosha riots of 2020, suffered a 70 percent homicide increase between 2019 and 2021, and has on its books a 170-year-old abortion ban with no rape or incest exception, a policy put back into effect by the Dobbs ruling. Nationwide political issues are highly salient here.
But don’t look to us for a clear verdict. In the two major statewide elections on Tuesday, incumbents from both parties held on, despite strong challenges. Democrat Tony Evers will still be our governor, albeit facing a heavily Republican legislature. And Republican Ron Johnson has retained his U.S. Senate seat, albeit by a single-point margin.
Like voters everywhere, when asked about the most important issue, Wisconsinites were most likely to say the economy, or more specifically inflation. But in NBC’s exit polling this week, 12 percent said crime and 31 percent said abortion, giving these more explosive issues the power to shape close races.
The importance of crime, which generally works to the benefit of law-and-order Republicans, largely reflected the memory of the Kenosha riots. Of course, crime control is primarily a local issue, not so much a federal or even state one. But voters are not keen on making such fine distinctions: candidates must pay for all their parties’ sins.
The Evers administration’s handling of Kenosha was a key theme, with Evers seeking reelection and his first-term lieutenant governor, Mandela Barnes, challenging Johnson in the Senate race. Both got caught up in the anti-police fervor of 2020. Immediately following the shooting of Jacob Blake—who, it turned out, had been armed with a knife, was resisting arrest on a warrant for sexual assault and domestic violence, and was getting into a vehicle with kids in the back seat—Governor Evers put out a statement. He admitted that “we do not have all of the details,” yet inexplicably (and clumsily) added that Blake was “not the first Black man or person to have been shot or injured or mercilessly killed at the hands of individuals in law enforcement in our state or our country.” Two years later, these words naturally became the stuff of campaign ads.
But public-safety-based attacks were most effective, perhaps, against Barnes, who has repeatedly flirted with fringe ideas on law enforcement dating back to the mid-2010s. As CNN put it, he “signaled support for removing police funding and abolishing ICE.” In 2020 alone, Barnes called Milwaukee’s level of police funding a “priorities mismatch” and said the idea of defunding the police wasn’t as “aggressive” as often claimed. Milwaukee homicides nearly doubled between 2019 and 2021.
Pro- and anti-Barnes ads blanketing Wisconsin were a study in contrasts. Dark-colored attack spots painted Barnes as “dangerous,” a “radical” police defunder, in a message all but guaranteed to produce dubious allegations of racism (Barnes is African-American). In response, Barnes put on a collared shirt, unpacked some romaine lettuce from a grocery bag, and swore to the camera it was a “lie” that he wanted to defund the police. “I’ll make sure our police have the resources and training they need to keep our community safe, and that our communities have the resources to stop crime before it happens,” he added. “I’ll bring back manufacturing. And I’ll pass a middle-class tax cut!”
Meantime, the governorship will be key to setting abortion policy going forward, which put Republicans in a bind. The strict 1849 law was popular with the pro-life base but with few outside it. Tim Michels, the Republican challenging Evers, called the old law an “exact mirror” of his own views back in June, but in subsequent comments said that he would sign a bill adding rape and incest exceptions. In a debate last month, he vowed that he would “never arrest a doctor,” but his campaign later walked that comment back, too. For his part, Evers took the striking position that he would refuse to sign mere rape and incest exceptions: eliminating the entire law was the only option.
Every little thing matters when voters are evenly split, and the electorate is especially inscrutable when both parties manage to win close statewide races on the same day. But one simple way to interpret the Wisconsin results is that Barnes’s unpopular views on crime and Michels’s unpopular views on abortion made enough of a difference to do them both in. Even in a highly polarized time, the desire for something resembling a pragmatic center can come through in a swing state.
Photos by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images (left) / Jim Vondruska/Getty Images (right)