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Crime is in the spotlight in the U.S. Senate race in Wisconsin

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Republicans are putting crime center stage nationwide, and Wisconsin's Senate race is one of the most prominent examples. NPR's Danielle Kurtzleben just came back from talking to voters there and brings us this report.

DANIELLE KURTZLEBEN, BYLINE: At the GOP Fall Fest in Racine, Wis., last weekend, governor candidate Tim Michels emphasized crime.

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TIM MICHELS: There are thousands of laws on the books to reduce crime, to stop crime. It just takes proper leadership.

KURTZLEBEN: So did Congressman Bryan Steil.

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BRYAN STEIL: You're seeing the crime rates go up, and it's soft-on-crime politicians who continue to stand in the way.

KURTZLEBEN: As did Republican incumbent Senator Ron Johnson.

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RON JOHNSON: How about rising crime? I mean, you're aware of the fact that my opponent, Mandela Barnes, he's the guy who wrote the bill to release criminals without bail.

KURTZLEBEN: Johnson is referring to Democratic Lieutenant Governor Mandela Barnes and his opposition to cash bail. Barnes argues his plan would keep people from, quote, "buying their way out of jail." The attacks reflect what's going on nationally. In a memo earlier this month, the Republican National Committee highlighted crime as a way for Republicans to gain an advantage. Craig Gilbert is a fellow at Marquette University Law School and a columnist at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

CRAIG GILBERT: It's a pretty traditional kind of Republican message to paint Democrats as soft on crime, but it seems to be right now playing a bigger role in this campaign and certainly in the Republican advertising than in most of the statewide races that I can remember in Wisconsin.

KURTZLEBEN: It's a decades-old tactic, and past attacks on crime have had racial or even racist components. Race has become a part of this fight as well. Supporters of Barnes, who is Black, have accused Republicans of racism in ads like this one, which attacks Barnes on crimes.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: A different Democrat, a dangerous Democrat.

KURTZLEBEN: Johnson's campaign denied the ad is racist. Gilbert sees the attacks as part of a wider Republican strategy.

GILBERT: Republicans are vulnerable with suburban voters, certainly on the abortion issue and certainly in the Trump era. I think Republicans see crime as a way to kind of counter that trend.

KURTZLEBEN: But then, he added, there are real existing fears about crime. In Milwaukee, the murder rate is up, which has many voters worried, including Democrats. I met Jen Whitton outside of a Mandela Barnes event.

JEN WHITTON: I do think about crime. We live in Milwaukee, which is a very, unfortunately, high-crime city. I think about crime more in terms of, like, what we're doing to keep our children safe.

KURTZLEBEN: Her main issue this year is guns in schools, traditionally framed as a separate issue from crime. Talking to voters emphasizes that especially when crime is up, neither party has a monopoly on worrying about it. Rather, crime becomes another example of how America's problems become reflections of very different worldviews. At the Barnes rally, Melanie McClellan argued for community investment and against the charge that Barnes wants to cut police funding.

MELANIE MCCLELLAN: What he wants to do is just reposition those funds to go into other resources instead of cutting back on police forces because we obviously need police, you know, to help in the community.

KURTZLEBEN: Meanwhile, outside of Fall Fest, Republican voter Rich Strohm told me that harsher punishments could help reduce crime.

RICH STROHM: I do a lot of hunting. I'm a guns guy. But I would like to see when they're used illegally - boy, you know, lock them up, take - you know, they should really be taken seriously.

KURTZLEBEN: Polls suggest Johnson has gained ground in recent weeks. It's impossible to know how much these attacks caused that shift. Regardless, Barnes is on the counteroffensive. He started a campaign push this week called Ron Against Roe to maintain the focus on abortion. Danielle Kurtzleben, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Danielle Kurtzleben is a political correspondent assigned to NPR's Washington Desk. She appears on NPR shows, writes for the web, and is a regular on The NPR Politics Podcast. She is covering the 2020 presidential election, with particular focuses on on economic policy and gender politics.