Wisconsin, Pennsylvania Senate Races: GOP Uses Crime Against Democrats John Fetterman, Mandela Barnes

Around the corner from the Milwaukee Public Market, Eden Haynes recalled seeing a DoorDash employee’s car stolen while her children were in the car.

The hijacker reportedly shot an off-duty detective in the stomach before fleeing the scene to CBS58.

“It’s been a crazy year,” Haynes, a Democrat, told CBS News. “Fortunately, she was safe. I think he dropped the car off with [kids] in it. It’s just crazy. It scares me a little bit because he could come in here and do something.”

In the Wisconsin Senate race between Republican Sen. Ron Johnson and Democratic Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes, voters’ top concerns are crime and public safety. In October Poll by CBS News, crime ranked third behind the economy and inflation when it came to “very important issues” for likely voters. And 42% of registered voters said Johnson’s policies would make them “safer against crime.”

The question itself is divided along partisan lines, but 59% of voters who identify as “moderate” said it was “very important.” By comparison, 45% of moderates see the abortion issue, around which Barnes and the Wisconsin Democrats have focused their campaigns, as “very important.”

Crime in Milwaukee began to rise during the COVID-19 pandemic. According to the data, from 2020 to October 2022, the number of murders and non-fatal shootings increased by 18%. Data from the Milwaukee Police Department. In 2020, 3,228 cases of car theft were registered. As of October 28, 6,913 car thefts were registered, an increase of 114 percent.

Throughout the campaign and now in the final days of the race, Republicans across the country have been bashing Democrats as “soft on crime.”

The problem has been particularly prevalent in GOP attack ads against Barnes. As of August 30, 70% are Republicans announcements that the air in the Wisconsin Senate race mentions crime, and the pace of them announcements the wind remained high since Oct. 18, according to data analysis by ad tracking firm AdImpact.

In the Pennsylvania Senate race between Democratic Lt. Gov. John Fetterman and Republican Mehmet Oz, 53% Republican announcements since August 30, the mentioned crime. Since Aug. 30, Republicans have spent $12.3 million on crime ads, more than the $11.8 million spent on any other issue.

A Republican ad against Barnes in Wisconsin hit him over his past comments, one about how police budgets another in which he expressed support must be redistributed as well reducing the number of prisoners half

Barnes tried to refute the ad on several fronts. He was running a single ad from Aug. 30, in which he says, “Look, we knew the other side was going to lie about me to scare you. Now they’re saying I want to defund the police and abolish ICE. That’s a lie.” According to AdImpact, he spent more than $3.1 million on that ad.

Republican Sen. Ron Johnson sought to connect with Wisconsin’s law enforcement community and argued that while the federal government has little influence over local funding for police departments, unequivocal support for law enforcement is needed.

“If you don’t feel safe on your streets, in your neighborhood, in your own home, it will revitalize your voices,” Johnson told CBS News after an October event where he touted his support for the Wisconsin Fraternal Order of Police. “This is primarily a problem of the disdain that some politicians have shown for law enforcement for too many years.”

Ryan Windroff, president of the Wisconsin Fraternal Order of Police, blamed Democratic district attorneys for high crime rates for setting bail too low and for not imposing harsh enough sentences to prevent recidivism.

“Any officer who works the street can tell you that they deal with a small percentage of the population, most of the time. It’s the same people doing the same thing over and over again,” he said.

In an interview with CBS News, Barnes said defunding the police “is not my position at all” and noted his support for state budgets that increase funding for law enforcement. He argued that the root problems of crime, economic opportunity and education play a bigger role in the rise of crime than how politicians talk about the problem.

“When you talk about rising crime, nobody comes out and says, ‘Well, what are the Democrats thinking?’ They don’t even ask, “What are Republicans thinking?” This is not what makes a person commit a crime. This is the desperation that people feel. It’s a lack of opportunities,” he said.

Barnes called Johnson a hypocrite for supporting law enforcement over his comments that the Jan. 6 attacks were not an “insurgency” — it’s “inaccurate” to call them that, Johnson stated in early October — and his ties to an attempt to feed former Vice President Mike Pence false information about the 2020 presidential election.

Johnson told CBS News that he condemned the violence on Jan. 6 but reiterated his earlier remarks. “There weren’t thousands of armed insurgents,” Johnson said. “This is a false narrative.”

Several Democratic voters in Milwaukee told CBS News they believe Republicans are exploiting the crime issue and believe the ad showing Barnes, a black Milwaukee native, is racist.

“My concern is that we never try to address the root causes, because that takes time and energy and nuanced, nuanced debates, instead of just saying, ‘Let’s throw them under the bus because crime is going up,'” said Susie Holstein . .

“They equate Mandela to the fact that he is black, therefore all his friends are frauds. And it’s the most obscene, divisive ad,” said Nancy Link of Waukesha, Milwaukee.

She referred one ad from the National Republican Senatorial Committee, which linked Barnes’ support for abolition of cash bail to Darrell Brookswho was found guilty of first degree murder after driving his SUV into a Waukesha Christmas Paradesix people died.

In a statement, NRSC communications director Chris Hartline said Democrats’ general accusations that the ad is racist “are not surprising given that this is what Democrats and their media allies do when they lose.”

“We’re using their own words and their own records. If they don’t like it, they should invent a time machine, go back in time and not accept the stupid ideas that voters reject,” he added.

In Pennsylvania, Oz, and outside the GOP, Fetterman has been criticized on air and on the campaign trail for issues of crime and safety — saying he wants to free a third of the prison population and legalize drugs. They also attacked his votes as chairman of the state Board of Pardons, which is part of his role as lieutenant governor.

The Senate Leadership Fund, which is spending more than $40 million on this race alone, began running a series of crime-focused ads starting in August, according to AdImpact tracking. The Oz Company and the NRSC also began running ads that referenced crime around the same time. On the air, as election day approached, attention to crime increased.

“It’s at the forefront of many voters’ minds, especially suburban women outside of Philly and Pittsburgh,” said Jess Szymanski, senior adviser at Republican consulting firm Axiom Strategies. “The company in Oz and other companies in Pennsylvania can focus and hone in on this issue, really resonate with people. I think that’s why you’re seeing the polls get tighter in Pennsylvania.”

The latest CBS News Battleground Tracker has Fetterman leading Oz by 2 points, within the margin of error. That’s less than Fetterman’s five-point lead in mid-September.

Fetterman pushed back on the attacks, accusing Republicans of lying. On the stump, he talked about how he ran for mayor of Braddock to end gun violence, and through community outreach and police funding, murders stopped for five and a half years.

“I’m a Democrat who stands by his record on crime,” Fetterman said on the campaign trail in response to the attacks. “What Does Dr. Oz Know About Crime? What has he ever done?”

In response to the spate of attacks, he also released his own television ads featuring state law enforcement officials and declaring his support for police funding.

There’s no denying that crime has increased in Philadelphia in recent years, with homicides increasing sharply in 2020 from 2019 and continuing to rise in 2021. There were 437 homicides this year, only a slight drop from this time last year.

The very last CBS News Battleground Tracker showed that 91% of registered voters in the state said it was important for the candidates to talk about crime and policing during the debate, making it the second most important issue behind the economy and inflation policy.

A day before the first and only debate, Oz released his crime-fighting plan. After that, he campaigned for the State Troopers Association in Harrisburg and spoke about public safety.

“For most of my life, I’ve done that by talking about health issues. But it turns out that security also creates a lot of health problems,” Oz said.

Voters are split on who is best equipped to handle the challenge.

“Crime is a problem, but the Republicans won’t do anything about guns, so to me it’s a big thing that has to do with crime,” said Anita Altman, a registered Democrat. She said Democrats are better about gun laws.

The Reverend Dr. Wayne Weathers, who worked on President Biden’s 2020 campaign, said of the constant criminal advertising: “I call it the Willie Horton of the 21st century.”

Caitlin Huey-Burns contributed to this report.

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