Wisconsin Democratic Senate candidate Mandela Barnes’s years of criticizing police has left him with few allies in the Wisconsin law enforcement community—a rift that his opponent, Republican Sen. Ron Johnson, has been relentlessly highlighting on the campaign trail.
While Barnes has scrambled to distance himself from the "defund the police" movement, his campaign has had a hard time finding officers willing to make his case in public. Of the 72 sheriffs in Wisconsin, only 2 have endorsed Barnes, compared with 51 who are backing Johnson—including a handful of Democrats and independents.
Last week, two police officers asked Barnes to remove their names from his sparse list of supporters, drawing attention to his difficulty on this issue. Meanwhile, the Johnson campaign has been steadily consolidating police support. The Milwaukee Police Association endorsed Johnson on Tuesday, citing Barnes’s soft-on-crime policies, including his proposal to cut the state’s prison population in half.
The growing divide between the candidates comes as 61 percent of Wisconsin voters said they are "very concerned" about crime, the electorate’s second highest concern after inflation, according to a Marquette University poll.
Pete Deates, the president of the Kenosha Professional Police Association Board, which endorsed Johnson this month, told the Washington Free Beacon Barnes’s sparse list of supporters—was "kind of comical."
"It doesn’t surprise me one bit. He has shown and said things that prove he does not support law enforcement," said Deates.
Deates said he is still disturbed by Barnes’s response to the Kenosha police shooting of Jacob Blake in 2020, which sparked days of deadly anti-police riots in the city. Barnes, who was lieutenant governor at the time, blamed the shooting on police misconduct and suggested it was racially motivated—claims that have not been substantiated by multiple investigations.
Deates said Barnes’s comments "100 percent" fueled the rioters that flocked to the city and the eruption of violence that followed. "It gave the people who have a negative view of law enforcement carte blanche," he said.
While Barnes’s campaign says he does not support defunding the police, his close ties to the movement has irked the law enforcement community. In addition to advocating for policies the movement supports, such as ending cash bail and shrinking prisons, Barnes posed with an "Abolish ICE" t-shirt, and defended the campaign on Twitter—arguing that "defunding the police only dreams of being as radical as a Donald Trump pardon."
Barnes also gave the headline speech at an event last year for the Center for Popular Democracy, one of the leading anti-police groups and a sponsor of defundpolice.org, the Free Beacon reported. Barnes said he was "very honored" to receive the group's endorsement and praised its "amazing work."
Even Barnes’s public backers seemed reluctant to comment on his more controversial associations.
Troy Knudson, the Democratic sheriff of Rock County who is retiring at the end of the year, said he endorsed Barnes because of concerns about Sen. Johnson’s COVID policies.
"I guess I was a little frustrated with the leadership of Sen. Johnson during the COVID pandemic," said Knudson. "That’s kind of what drove that endorsement decision."
As for Barnes’s work with anti-police groups and the "Abolish ICE" movement, Knudson said he "would have to have more information on that" before commenting. He said he doesn’t have plans to film an ad or do additional campaigning for Barnes.
Jeff Skatrud, the Democratic sheriff of Green County, also confirmed that he endorsed Barnes but declined to comment further.
The lack of enthusiasm has left the Barnes campaign with few messengers to defend his law enforcement positions. The candidate’s latest ad features a single proponent, Rick Geller, a former Racine police officer who retired a decade ago and bills himself as a member of the anti-Republican "resistance" on Twitter.
"Mandela doesn’t want to defund the police," said Geller in the ad. "He’s very supportive of law enforcement."
Geller told the Free Beacon that he "felt comfortable, as a retired officer" supporting Barnes, and doesn’t believe the candidate wants to defund the police. He said he also doesn’t think Barnes will be able to enact his policy proposal to end cash bail nationally.
"I don’t think that’s within his power to make a change like that, anyway," he said.