Republicans hammer crime in key Wisconsin races; Democrats say they want to distract from abortion

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(WASHINGTON) – Republicans are going on the attack in Wisconsin — drawing a “fact check” in rebuttal from the state’s Democratic governor — as they press what they see as an advantage on the issue of crime and law enforcement support in the final weeks before crucial midterm races there.

A recent spate of ads released by GOP groups attacking the Democratic nominees running for office have pushed them to go on the defense, with incumbent Gov. Tony Evers on Tuesday working to debunk, he said, a TV spot from the Republican Governors Association that claimed his policies played a role in the release of hundreds of violent criminals by the state’s parole commission.

Democratic operatives say conservatives’ focus on crime is a distraction from other key issues on which voters view them less favorably, like abortion access post Roe. Evers’ Republican challenger, Tim Michels, opposes abortion in almost all cases.

“I’m principled; my wife and I, we know we have to answer to somebody higher than anybody on the face of this earth. We’re pro-life because of our faith,” he has said.

But a Marquette University Law School Poll released earlier this month analyzing Wisconsin’s Senate and governor race showed that 61% of registered voters were concerned about crime. The issue ranked among the top-five issues for voters in the state.

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In response to the RGA ad, which sought to link Evers to the release of “over 800 convicted criminals,” “270 murderers and attempted murderers” and “44 child rapists,” the Evers campaign said “of the 884 convicted criminals released under Gov. Evers’ administration, nearly half were released because their release was required by law.”

His campaign stressed that, in Wisconsin, “only the parole chair can decide who gets let out of prison on parole. The governor has no role in these decisions,” adding that the parole chair, John Tate, “never received a full confirmation hearing” and that he was unanimously recommended for confirmation by a Republican-controlled Committee on the Judiciary and Public Safety.

And as to the RGA ad’s claims that the governor’s “liberal policies” have made local communities less safe, Evers’ campaign pointed out that the governor signed a bill in April preventing violent criminals and sex offenders from being released early from prison in the future. Evers contrasted that with Michels, who opposes gun law changes including so-called “red flag” legislation, which would allow law enforcement to remove firearms from people they believe may present a danger to themselves or others.

Michels said in June: “It’s not the guns. It’s a cultural problem today. And a lot of it is a byproduct of the whole ‘defund the police’ movement, where cops became bad guys.”

The Republican Party and their Wisconsin nominees have also spotlighted two members of the law enforcement community who have publicly announced that they never actually endorsed Democratic Senate nominee Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes, despite their names being initially filed under a list by the campaign detailing officers who support him.

Both La Crosse County Sheriff’s Captain John Siegel — who is running for county sheriff — and Racine County Deputy Malik Frazier’s names were listed but have since been removed by the Barnes campaign. The coalition of law enforcement that supports Barnes now includes 15 members, two of whom are active-duty sheriffs from Rock County and Green County.

Wisconsin Right Now first reported on Siegel’s removal from the list. Siegel told the outlet that he never endorsed the lieutenant governor and that he did not plan to endorse anyone in the state’s Senate race.

When reached by ABC News, Lt. Michael Luell, a spokesman with the Racine County Sheriff’s Office, said that Deputy Malik Frazier “expressed some level of surprise” when he saw his name on the list of law enforcement who supported Barnes.

“[Frazier] stated that he may be personally supporting Lieutenant Governor Mandela Barnes, but he did not intend to professionally endorse him, and that professional endorsement was a mistake made by the Barnes’ campaign,” Luell said. (La Crosse County Sheriff’s Captain John Siegel did not respond to a request from ABC News for comment.)

The Senate Leadership Fund, a Republican-aligned super PAC, has recently published multiple ads targeting Barnes’ support to eliminate cash bail, an issue that its supporter say would remove an excessive financial burden on people accused of even minor infractions — but which the GOP ad contends would set “accused criminals free into the community before trial.”

In a statement to ABC News in response to the negative ads, Maddy McDaniel, a Barnes campaign spokeswoman, said: “Ron Johnson defended the criminals whose insurrection injured 140 police officers. He loves to point fingers about crime, but then voted against police funding while Lt. Governor Barnes and Governor Evers actually invested in public safety and law enforcement.”

Some outside Democratic strategists cast the Republican ads focusing on crime as “fear mongering” and a distraction from their other weaknesses on the trail.

“There’s no question that [Republicans] want people to be scared,” said Democratic strategist Joe Zepecki, adding, “They’re trying to create an alternative environment that they think is better for them politically. But we know that the biggest story in American politics this year is the attack on women’s reproductive freedom.”

A new Spectrum News/Siena College poll released this week showed Evers with a 5-point lead over Michels in a race that FiveThirtyEight says favors Evers. The Spectrum/Siena poll also asked voters about their take on the U.S. Supreme Court decision in June that overturned Roe v. Wade, with 72% of Wisconsinites polled saying they want a new abortion law in the state versus relying on the state’s “1849 law” that broadly bans the procedure.

In a Marquette Law School poll released last week, 51% of Wisconsin voters surveyed said Republican incumbent Sen. Ron Johnson “doesn’t share their values” versus 41% for Lt. Gov. Barnes.

Zepecki, the strategist, said that he believes “nobody buys” that Evers is “just flinging open the jail cell or ushering people out into the streets. That’s insane.”

As for the two members of law enforcement who were removed from the list of endorsements for Barnes, Zepecki said he does not foresee that negatively influencing the relatively small share of undecided voters in Wisconsin.

“I think this is much ado about nothing,” he argued. “This is the stuff that happens when you got campaigns that are trying to do 7,000 things with not enough staff and not enough time before Election Day, so I have a hard time believing that this has got to change anybody’s mind in this election, particularly talking about the truly undecided voters.”

Alec Zimmerman, a spokesperson for Johnson’s campaign, had another view: “Mandela Barnes can’t even tell the truth about who is endorsing his campaign — voters shouldn’t believe a word that comes out of his mouth.”

On Wednesday, Johnson’s campaign announced a bipartisan coalition of 51 sheriffs who had endorsed him.

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