WEST ALLIS, Wis.—Wisconsin Democratic Senate candidate Mandela Barnes was shaking hands with supporters at a campaign event outside of Milwaukee on Wednesday when a middle-aged man wearing a Vietnam veterans’ jacket approached him with some unsolicited advice: Talk more about inflation.
“How many Democrats have I heard talk about that? Zero,” the frustrated man told the Democratic candidate.
“I appreciate the advice,” said Barnes politely. Then he promptly ignored it, walking to the back of the room and giving a speech focused on the same topic his campaign has been hammering relentlessly in the final weeks of the election: abortion.
Democrats in Wisconsin are gambling that the Supreme Court decision overturning Roe v. Wade will both energize their base and turn out new supporters concerned about abortion restrictions. Barnes has fully embraced this strategy, making unrestricted abortion access his main closing argument in his competitive race against Sen. Ron Johnson.
But the narrow focus also carries a big risk, according to political observers, who say undecided and independent voters—the ones who determine elections in swing-states like Wisconsin—are far more concerned about issues like inflation and schools than about abortion.
“I understand [abortion] being a base issue that will help drive turnout, but you’re still leaving a segment of the voters that are probably going to be the ones deciding who’s the next governor, who’s the next U.S. senator,” said Keith Gilkes, a Wisconsin Republican strategist. “They’re concerned about crime, they’re concerned about inflation, the economy, and are we heading into a recession.”
Gilkes said he thinks Democrats are making a similar mistake to Republicans in 2006, when the party campaigned on a statewide referendum against gay marriage, which passed, but lost the gubernatorial and Senate races in the process.
“We did not make it easy on ourselves … spending all of our time focused on the culture war issues set as opposed to the broader concerns of the electorate on health care and the economy and the recession,” said Gilkes.
In Wisconsin, the all-abortion strategy hasn’t paid off yet for Democrats. Barnes is now trailing Johnson by 6 points, according to a Marquette Law School poll this week, a shift from September, when the Democrat was behind by just 1 point.
While Democratic voters view abortion as the most pressing issue of the election, this opinion isn’t shared by other groups, according to the Marquette poll. Likely voters, including independents and women voters, say they are more worried about inflation, schools, and gun violence.
That enthusiasm gap between the progressive base and more moderate voters was apparent on Barnes’s “Ron Against Roe” tour this week. In deep-blue Milwaukee last weekend, over 100 energized supporters packed into a small high school gymnasium to hear Barnes speak alongside Alexis McGill Johnson, the head of Planned Parenthood.
Planned Parenthood’s political arm, which helped organize the event, has poured millions into the midterm races to help elect Democrats. Organizers with clipboards stood by the entrance, trying to recruit attendees to canvas neighborhoods with pro-Barnes literature.
The speakers made no pretense of trying to appeal to moderates. “When Ron Johnson talks about ‘freedom,’ he’s talking about old, rich, 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 supporter. / A Donald Trump adorer”—before leading the audience in a chant of “RoJo Gotta Go.”
Barnes took the stage and called for ending the Senate filibuster rules—a popular idea with progressives, but one that the vast majority of Americans oppose, according to polling.
“That zero-seat majority [for Democrats] isn’t enough. If we get rid of Ron Johnson, if we pick up more Senate seats, we can get rid of the filibuster,” said Barnes to applause.
Such messages are less likely to resonate in places like West Allis, a moderate, Democratic working-class city just east of Milwaukee, where Hillary Clinton beat Donald Trump by just 3 points in 2016.
On Wednesday, Barnes’s “Ron Against Roe” tour stopped at a no-frills West Allis sports bar, greeted by a much smaller group of a few dozen supporters and significantly less fanfare.
At the Pallas Restaurant, there was no talk about “old white guys” or ending the filibuster. Democratic senator Tammy Baldwin gave Barnes a gentle introduction, saying he would be a “partner in the United States Senate who cares deeply and gets us.”
Barnes took aim at Johnson’s values, arguing that the Republican’s opposition to abortion “does not truly represent who we are as a state.” But while his speech was more subdued, he still stayed narrowly focused on the issue of abortion.
Shanon Frakes, a Vietnam War veteran who attended the event, told the Washington Free Beacon that he would like to hear the lieutenant governor talk more about inflation.
“You don’t hear any Democrat talk about that,” said Frakes, who described himself as a swing voter over the years.
“I was a Republican, [now] I’m a Democrat, but I’m really an independent,” said Frakes.
Nikki Bender and Shari Young, two Barnes supporters from nearby Wauwatosa, told the Free Beacon that they hope the abortion issue will be effective at bringing out new voters for Barnes.
“I don’t think it’s the only progressive issue that we’re talking about. But I think it is a driving issue,” said Young. “An entire generation of men and women have grown up assuming their rights to reproductive choice were in place and were guaranteed, and to find out that it’s not is quite a shock to an awful lot of young people that, I think, will bring people out.”
But even Bender, who views Roe v. Wade as “one of the most important issues” of the race, said it would be nice to hear the Barnes campaign address other issues beyond abortion. When she greeted Barnes at the event, she asked him to talk more about economic inequality without demonizing the wealthy.
“I know you’re sort of saying that [already],” Bender told Barnes. “But I want to hear the words saying it: ‘We don’t dislike you because you’re rich.’”
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