Political Ads for the Wisconsin Senate Seat: A Review


ared Rodriguez / t r u t h o u t; Adapted: Thomas Hawk, Horia Varlan | flickr

The advertisements for Wisconsin’s Senate seat were especially divisive this year and used misinformation and even race to make digs at opposing candidates.

Mawuenam Dossa

For the past three to four months, Wisconsinites have been bombarded with ads supporting and dissing politicians. As an active Model United Nations participant and someone who is interested in the ins and outs of politics and government, the ads for Wisconsin’s Nov. 9 midterm elections concerned me, partly because of misconstrued evidence and flat out misinformation that I observed. 

Whether it is Wisconsin Democratic Senator Candidate J. Mandela Barnes asking Capitol Hill politicians if they know what the price of milk is (though I know I have no clue right now!) or Wisconsin Republican Gubernatorial Candidate Tim Michels using his company as proof of leadership (which in reality does not translate too well to a government position), it feels like political ads are pushing stronger than ever to get votes. Let’s review some of the most memorable ads and see how candidates crafted their personas and communicated their arguments through advertising this election. 

Mandela Barnes’ “Cost of Milk” Ad

In this 30-second video, Democratic Senate Candidate Mandela Barnes explains how he is more relatable to the average Wisconsin working-class citizen compared to the other senators running in the election. He gets the point across by mentioning that “Most senators couldn’t tell you the cost of a gallon of milk…or how much beef has gone up this year.” This is a way to mention the feeling of unrelatability and distance from the people that are in power. 

Mandela puts himself out as “one of us.” He even confirms this again stating, “My mom was a teacher and my dad worked third shift,” further showing that he does not have a wealthy background as many anticipate coming from a politician. 

My problem with this ad is that this, and many other ads Barnes ran, was centered around the idea that he is relatable and one of the people. He has been pushing that narrative in every ad and it makes him one-sided. The idea Barnes attempts to get across is that incumbent Republican Ron Johnson has been in office since 2010, technically 2011, and is 67 compared to Barnes’ age of 35, and is no longer “one of the people.”

Anti-Barnes “Feel Safe” Ad from the Senate Leadership Fund

Senate Leadership Fund, “Feel Safe”

This 30-second advertisement by the Senate Leadership Fund, talks about Barnes’ stance on the handling and conditions of criminals, more specifically cashless bail. The Senate Leadership Fund is a Super Political Action Committee (PAC). A PAC in this case, unlike our Performing Arts Center, is an independent group that can use as much money as they want to make ads for and against whatever candidate they want without giving any of that money to candidates. 

The Senate Leadership Fund states on their website that their goal is “to build a Republican Senate majority that will defend America from Chuck Schumer and Senate Democrats’ destructive far-left agenda.” 

The ad starts with the speaker asking,“Do you feel safe?” This is a strategic start, as it plants that thought in the viewer’s mind to have roaming in their head for the rest of the ad. 

The ad rips on Barnes’ stances on cashless bail and defunding the police. The Senate Leadership Fund uses examples to show what kind of crimes that would fall under cashless bail, “shootings, robbery, carjackings, violent attacks on our police.” 

Barnes has had a record of staying at interviews and assemblies that the amount of funding police services and United States Imigration Customs Enforcement receive is too much and should be put into more social programs. However, Barnes has been pulling back on the aggressiveness and magnitude that he pushes as a way to pull more centrist and maybe even slight left leaning votes to his side.  

The Senate Leadership Fund ends their ad by stating, “He (Barnes) stands with them, not us.” This time they make the point very clear of what the message is, a message they have built up to, isolating Barnes from the target audience to make it look as if he does care about his voters, but about allegedly dangerous criminals.

Anti-Barnes’ “Waukesha” Ad from the National Republican Senatorial Committee

This is a 30-second ad that the National Republican Senatorial Committee made to slander the name of Mandela Barnes. The ad is another jab at Mandela Barnes’ take on cashless bail. It is similar to the previous “Feel Safe” ad, but there is a detail that really is concerning to see from a political candidate. 

The ad has an opening statement saying, “What happens when criminals are released because bail is set dangerously low?” It then shows the tragedy of the 2021 Waukesha Christmas Parade hit-and-run, which killed six and injured 62, using an excerpt from local news coverage of the event. The ad mentions and shows the perpetrator as they say he is out of police custody on his $1,000 bail, awaiting trial. 

The ad goes on to say that Barnes wants to implement cashless bail and that “he wrote the bill.” He did introduce a bill to the Wisconsin State Assembly, Bill 981, implementing cashless bail. This was, however, in 2016 and failed to get past the joint hearing.

They also imply Barnes’ support for letting the perpetrator of the Waukesha hit-and-run out of jail, which is blatantly inaccurate. He did, however, leave his response to what he thought about the $1,000 bail in the air by saying,  “The lieutenant governor believes that’s a decision best left to voters,” via his campaign spokeswoman Maddy McDaniel.

The ad ends by stating, “Mandela Barnes. Not just a democrat, but dangerously democrat.” It runs this audio while playing an image showing him in line with three congress members, all people of color, consisting of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Barnes, Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar. These are people, excluding Barnes, who are in what political enthusiasts call “The Squad,” a group of six people of color who are members in the House of Representatives. Under the image is a text stating, “Mandela Barnes Dangerous.” 

This is a completely unnecessary detail to campaign on. It is racist to imply that Barnes is an undesirable candidate because he, and other elected officials associated with him, are of a different skin tone than others. There is a small case for coincidence. They could have used an image of other Wisconsin congressmen and women, like Representatives Mark Pocan and Ron Kind or Senator Tammy Baldwin. This was a clear and intentional “us versus them,” not using just party lines but racial ones, too — a really deplorable thing.


A Look at the Results of the Elections

I expected a Republican win in the Wisconsin Senate Race, and Johnson did. Johnson is an incumbent, he started in 2010, and is not a major talking point outside of political debates and election season, meaning most Wisconsinites are satisfied with him, or at least happy enough not to vote him out of office. Barnes, on the other hand , garners much discussion for what he does despite him only being the Lieutenant Governor, which could indicate that he is often questioned rather than accepted.  

There is an interesting and long-standing United States Senate trend of voting against the party of the president in the midterm election. For nearly the last few years, most Senate elections have seen the ruling party, the Republicans, keep or gain control. 

A recent example of this is in the 2018 Senate elections, when the Republicans kept control of the Senate, gaining two extra seats. This is contrary to the House, where the roles are typically reversed as the ruling party typically loses the majority and is in opposition to it. These facts played out nearly perfectly in this election, with Georgia still waiting to have the runoff where a seat for senate could either form a Republican Majority in both houses or a split with a Republican House and Democrat Senate. This in itself doesn’t mean that there would be a massive red wave over the US. There are still going to be places that vote democrat but it’s the swing districts themselves that can see a change in the balance of Republicans and Democrats. For the most part, a candidate wants to convince the centrist more than the secure Democrat or Republican as that is what changes a district’s color.

The candidates in Wisconsin, and presumably around the nation, used emotional, social, political and even racial points to convince voters to get them their spot in Congress. With more voters being on devices than ever, the ads and campaigns really used all their resources to let us know what they were better at and why the other side was worse.

Barnes tried to get the message out about him and Johnson mainly let others do his work and many people know what he has done in the Senate anyway. This election showed the power of incumbency and experience. I mean, I’ll give credit to Senator Johnson, you can’t get this far without knowing what you are doing and clearly he played his cards correctly. However, I think that the anti-Barnes ads really did have a racial undertone to them, which did not sit right with me. Politics should not be a race war as much as an ideological one, but it seems that with polarization, the line is constantly blurred. 

In the end, politics is a game of opposing sides that we have some say in. Now we get to see what our elected officials will do in this session of Congress. 


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