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Last Night’s Must-See TV Was This Brutal U.S. Senate Debate in Wisconsin

Mandela Barnes and Ron Johnson in split screen standing at podiums during a debate.

We’re less than four weeks out from the midterm elections and candidates are not pulling their punches. At its worst, that means we get clumsy, hollow attacks on candidates’ characters. At its best, we get to see corruption and ineptitude called out in real time. At last night’s debate for a U.S. Senate seat in Wisconsin, both sides of that coin were on display.

The debate was between incumbent Republican Senator Ron Johnson and Democratic Lt. Governor Mandela Barnes. Both men came prepared with fierce attacks on the other. The difference between them was that Johnson’s attacks seemed rooted in broad GOP talking points, while Barnes cut into Johnson with precision.

For example, Johnson accused Barnes of wanting to “defund the police,” a piece of Fox News rhetoric that Barnes says isn’t accurate, even if he had the power to do so as a senator, which he wouldn’t. Barnes responded by pointing out that Johnson’s repeated dismissal of the January 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol has been disrespectful and destructive to actual police officers.

Barnes had no shortage of material for his incisive condemnations. He called Johnson out for making taxpayers pay for his private planes and plane trips:

Johnson tried to paint himself as an expert businessman who understands the American economy. He insulted Barnes for not owning a business. Barnes replied by pointing out that Johnson’s “biggest achievement in business was … saying ‘I do,'” since his experience in business comes from running a company founded by his in-laws.

“Senator Johnson is just taking a whole lot of credit for his business-in-law,” Barnes said, giving what was probably the line of the night.

Barnes also brought up the fact that the FBI warned Johnson he might be being used as a Russian asset, saying “We cannot trust Johnson to protect democracy abroad because we can’t even trust Senator Johnson to protect democracy here at home.”

Johnson’s rebuttal to that, by the way, did not go over well:

However, my favorite moment of the night came at the end, when, after an evening of attacks, the moderators asked both candidates to name something they found admirable about their opponent.

Barnes said that Johnson “has proven to be a family man” and that “that is absolutely to be respected.”

Johnson said that “likewise,” he’s glad Barnes had “loving parents” and “a good upbringing,” which is a weird answer in itself because that’s not anything Barnes has done. But Johnson couldn’t help himself and he just had to keep talking.

He continued on to say, “I guess what puzzles me about that is that with that upbringing, why has he turned against America? Why does he find the founding of America awful?”

What’s great about that moment is how strongly the audience turned against Johnson, loudly booing him as soon as his answer started to turn.

Clearly, people are tired of that sort of generic, fear-mongering rhetoric. The GOP has leaned in so hard to those Fox News catch phrases, from “CRT” to “grooming” to “defunding the police” that by this point, there’s very little else left in their platform. If voters are ready to turn against that empty rhetoric, what are Republicans left with? Not much at all.

(image: screencap)

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Vivian Kane (she/her) is the Senior News Editor at The Mary Sue, where she's been writing about politics and entertainment (and all the ways in which the two overlap) since the dark days of late 2016. Born in San Francisco and radicalized in Los Angeles, she now lives in Kansas City, Missouri, where she gets to put her MFA to use covering the local theatre scene. She is the co-owner of The Pitch, Kansas City’s alt news and culture magazine, alongside her husband, Brock Wilbur, with whom she also shares many cats.