Darrell Brooks—the man who killed six people with his car during a 2021 Christmas parade in the Milwaukee suburbs—was found guilty Wednesday of six counts of first-degree intentional homicide.
The ruling came after a 17-day media circus of a trial in which Brooks—who represented himself—was regularly featured in national news and social media feeds for his bizarre outbursts in court and consistent altercations with the judge overseeing the case.
But it also comes just two weeks before election day––with the trial and Brooks playing an unexpected role in a key battleground race that could decide control of the U.S. Senate next Congress.
Wisconsin workers and union members discuss the need for unions for all at a roundtable discussion with WI Lieutenant Governor Mandela Barnes and SEIU President Mary Kay Henry on October 25, 2022 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Gov. Tony Evers joined workers at a rally immediately following to get out the vote on the first day of early voting in the 2022 midterm elections.
Daniel Boczarski/Getty Images
For months, national Republicans and incumbent U.S. Senator Ron Johnson have sought to elevate Brooks as a symbol of the failures of Democratically-supported criminal justice reforms in Wisconsin and the progressive philosophy of Lieutenant Governor Mandela Barnes, Johnson’s opponent and the first Black man to hold statewide office in decades.
In September, the National Republican Senatorial Committee ran a pro-Johnson ad tying Barnes’ support of Democratic cash bail reforms to Brooks, who committed the murders while out on $1,000 cash bail. Upon the verdict, Barnes was hit again by the Republican National Committee, which explicitly attempted to tie Barnes’ policies to the six deaths in Waukesha.
“This sick murderer is a career criminal who should have been in jail, but was out thanks to a Democrat-backed policy that set his bail dangerously low,” it claimed in a tweet. “A day later, he killed six innocent people. These are the policies Mandela Barnes supports.”
This sick murderer is a career criminal who should have been in jail, but was out thanks to a Democrat-backed policy that set his bail dangerously low.
A day later, he killed six innocent people.
These are the policies Mandela Barnes supports.https://t.co/sloikRFiMk
— RNC Research (@RNCResearch) October 26, 2022
Barnes, who wrote the state’s bail reform laws in 2016, has challenged those claims, arguing his reforms would actually have kept people like Brooks in jail. Violent crime in the state rates well below the national average, according to federal data. And Wisconsin’s Democratic Governor Tony Evers and his administration have made a substantial investment in law enforcement over the last several years, the campaign has argued, while Johnson has made regularly made headlines for voting against proposals to fund law enforcement throughout his career.
That hasn’t mattered. Once the clear favorite in a race to the unpopular Johnson, Barnes lost his narrow summertime lead in September and now finds himself several points behind the Republican incumbent, whose relentless advertisements attacking Barnes elevated crime as a top issue in the campaign.
And it’s been effective. While a Data For Progress poll released the day of the Brooks verdict showed Evers virtually tied with Republican Tim Michels, Barnes faced a five-point deficit, driven largely by unfavorable ratings that had increased several points since the pollster’s last survey of the state’s electorate in September.
Though advertising helped, the trial—University of Wisconsin professor Barry Burden told Newsweek—assisted in keeping the issue at the forefront of people’s minds.
“The trial was a circus and it’s in the news every day,” he said in an interview.
Some political observers in-state have also noted a racial “dog whistle” element to the Republican strategy in Wisconsin, which they say aims to depict the unrest that occurred around the state in places like Milwaukee and Kenosha as a byproduct of liberal leniency on crime.
Some have gone as far to describe Johnson’s advertisements featuring Brooks, a Black man whose victims were primarily white, as akin to those deployed by Republican George H.W. Bush during the 1988 presidential campaign, which sought to tie Democratic opponent Michael Dukakis to Willie Horton, a Black man who murdered several white victims during the 1980s.
“There’s a racial connotation to discussions in the state about the City of Milwaukee,” Burden said. “It is where the bulk of the African-American population is. It’s where there’s a lot of concentrated poverty and it’s where there’s a lot of crime, dangerous crime. And in the minds of white voters, it’s not difficult to connect those dots. I think it’s easier when the opponent is an African-American man from that city.”
The Democratic position on criminal justice reform also bears a significant degree of nuance that Burden said is difficult to amplify over the appeals to emotion employed by the GOP. Democrats across the state, including one of Barnes’ seven primary opponents, have expressed misgivings to NBC News and other outlets about Barnes’ ability to respond to the attacks in the campaign’s closing weeks. That has allowed Republicans to dominate the messaging in the race, overcoming Barnes’ previous platform pillars of issues like abortion and labor and Johnson’s own unpopularity.
“For Democrats, it’s just more complicated,” he said. “They have a more nuanced way of thinking about criminal justice, and it doesn’t always come across cleanly in campaigns. Wanting to crack down on crime, I think, is a simpler message that just resonates more naturally. Drawing attention back to that this fall has really put Barnes in a defensive posture. He’s not been able to or has not talked about the issues that were working in his favor. And it’s put him in a difficult place to pull off a victory in this election.”
Source : Newsweek