All that scrutiny, all that face time, all that glorious lucre targeted on its prized 10 electoral votes.
“All this attention, it’s going to be fun,” says towering Frozen Tundra Man, a.k.a. Jeff Kahlow of Fond du Lac, swathed in grass and foam this Monday night in October, his face daubed with ersatz icicles, crowned with a likeness of Lambeau.
Three years ago, Wisconsin was projected to be a sure thing for Hillary Clinton. As any Wisconsinite can tell you, once Clinton secured the nomination, she didn’t campaign here for a single second. Ads didn’t air until days before the election.
Donald Trump made constant visits, two to this football-besotted city. He clutched the state by a margin of 22,748 votes, the first Republican to win since Ronald Reagan in 1984. When many TV networks finally called Wisconsin for Trump, that clinched the election.
Now, political organizers are canvassing the state like it's autumn 2020. "In Wisconsin, we're already in the general election while the rest of the country is thinking about the primary," says Democratic state chairman Ben Wikler.
Michigan and Pennsylvania are still vital. Every swing state is. But Wisconsin is a particularly challenging nut to crack, in part because of its uniquely divided electorate and recent political turmoil.
The state generates cozy tropes — cheese, Friday fish fries and Old-Fashioneds (with brandy, not whiskey), Wisconsin Nice and, yes, tailgating at Lambeau Field. But, as with many places, stereotypes crumble on closer inspection.
The state is rural and urban, dairy farmer and union, and almost equally split between Democrats and Republicans. It elected progressive Tammy Baldwin, the first senator to identify as gay, and avid Trumper Ron Johnson. Despite a state county map that was a blue quilt in 2008 and predominantly Badger red in 2016, “we’ve been purple all along,” says Charles Franklin, director of the state’s leading Marquette Law School Poll.
Long a cornerstone of the Midwest’s mighty Blue Wall, Wisconsin produced a troika of recent Republican national figures: former RNC chair and Trump chief of staff Reince Priebus, former House speaker Paul Ryan and, most divisively, former two-time governor and two-month presidential candidate Scott Walker, who survived a 2012 recall vote.
As Dan Kaufman writes in his book “The Fall of Wisconsin,” the GOP’s control of the capital over the past decade transformed the state “from a widely admired ‘laboratory of democracy’ to a testing ground for national conservatives bent on remaking America.”
All these dualities make for antacid-inducing close elections, as with the recent races for governor (won by Democrat Tony Evers) and state Supreme Court (conservative-backed Brian Hagedorn). In three of the past five presidential contests, Wisconsin was determined by less than one percentage point. Winning the state requires an intense ground game, many of its 72 counties decided by fewer ballots than the number to clinch a high school election.
Says Baldwin, who secured reelection last year by 11 percentage points, an exceptional mandate for recent state contests, “Taking a cookie-cutter approach won’t work.”
Walker says that Wisconsinites “respond to authentic candidates.” He says that of the three leading Democratic candidates, he’s most concerned about Bernie Sanders winning the Democratic nomination. “Like Trump, people believe Bernie is fighting for them. His ideas are the most extreme, but he’s authentic. He doesn’t hide on the substance.”
Congeniality is a matter of pride. There are few places where people speak more about their shared humility. Yet, in the past decade, politics has become a blood sport.
Resentment can be heard across the state. Milwaukee residents and farmers alike are tired of being treated like an afterthought. Republicans are critical of public employees and union members. Those public employees and union members feel battered.
“It’s hard to have a polite conversation,” says Hans Breitenmoser Jr., a dairy farmer in Merrill. “Wisconsin is just as polarized as other places in the country.”
It's no accident that Democrats selected Milwaukee to host their quadrennial national confab next summer. It's the Mea Culpa Convention. Trump has returned regularly as president, though his love affair with Harley-Davidson, headquartered in Milwaukee, has soured.
During the campaign, millions of dollars are projected to flood into Wisconsin from the parties, PACs, get-out-the-vote efforts, donors in deep-blue states, big money, dark money, $5 checks.
“No one is going to ignore Wisconsin,” Wikler says. “You have to come here to win the presidency. As goes Wisconsin, so goes the nation.” (Take that, Ohio.)
His counterpart, Republican state chair Andrew Hitt, agrees: “We are going to have visits from the president and his surrogates, and more resources than you’ve ever seen.”
To Republicans, winning Wisconsin is a referendum, to show that 2016 wasn’t an aberration.
To Democrats, the campaign is a reclamation project, to prove that Wisconsin remains a bastion of liberal politics.
In Waukesha County, the GOP held a “week of action” — in July. The first weekend of November, a brigade of Democratic volunteers knocked on more than 50,000 doors across the state (though not during the sacred Packers game).
The parties here have to navigate a thicket of constituencies. Wisconsin is a union state where unions have been decimated, most notably by Act 10, the 2011 Walker-led initiative that eliminated the union rights of most public workers. Mention Act 10 in many regions and prepare to clear the room. Green Bay teacher Grace Kubeny says: “My mom dated a guy for 20 years and they’re done because of Scott Walker. I hate Scott Walker more than I hate Trump.”
The state is more than 80 percent white. Milwaukee, by far its largest city, is nearly 60 percent black and Hispanic. The metro region, among the nation’s most segregated, is home to the predominantly white suburban WOW counties — Waukesha, Ozaukee and Washington — that are the linchpin to Republican victory.
Milwaukee and Madison can help deliver Wisconsin to Democrats, as they did twice for Barack Obama — but only if residents turn out. In 2016, this didn’t happen in Milwaukee, largely because of a lack of enthusiasm for Clinton and a Republican-sponsored voter ID law that proved a challenge for students, voters of color, the elderly and the economically disadvantaged.
Wisconsin boasts enviable turnout among eligible voters — 69.5 percent in 2016, far better than the 59.2 percent participation nationwide. But it can be a challenge to accurately poll. Clinton led in the pre-election 2016 surveys. Wisconsin has Election Day registration and doesn’t collect registered-voter data on gender, race or party affiliation. About 40 percent of the electorate identifies as independent, according to the Marquette poll. In 2016, Jill Stein and Gary Johnson each garnered more votes than the number separating Trump and Clinton.
“Independent” is often polite Wisconsinese for “none of your business.” In interviews with three dozen voters, residents identified as “conservative” or “progressive” and listed key issues rather than offering party affiliation.
“Wisconsin is perhaps tired of the Democrat-versus-Republican label,” Baldwin says.
A University of Wisconsin instructor in Madison, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of backlash for speaking about politics as a public employee, said that recent political squabbles have damaged the state’s conviviality. “There is fatigue from all the chaos. Norms have been broken. Families are not speaking to each other. Friends are not speaking to each other.”
"The Silent Majority Stands With Trump" read signs affixed to the windows of a former Waukesha storage facility in a suburban strip mall, the home of local Republican operations in the party's most vote-rich county. The initial three words — minted by Richard Nixon a half-century ago this week — are printed in sloping pink cursive.
“Republicans and Midwesterners tend to be pretty humble,” says Waukesha County GOP chair Terry Dittrich, sitting in the operation’s Reagan Room, filled with portraits of the former president. “They keep their opinions to themselves.”
Well, not supporters at Trump’s rallies in Green Bay and Eau Claire. But many voters stick to the Wisconsin Nice approach, knowing that family and neighbors may have differing views.
The Silent Majority signs’ target audience is clear: Female Republican voters who support the president’s policies but not his personal behavior. “Women’s issues are big issues for us,” Dittrich says. “Many women voters are willing to overlook some of what might be considered Trump’s shortcomings.” So, the local office is courting them early. The next day, the facility plays host to 68 female Trump supporters to watch a three-hour Democratic debate.
Three years ago, Trump notably underperformed here, collecting 20,000 fewer votes than Romney-Ryan in 2012. (He received a few thousand fewer statewide.) The Trump state director for strategic initiatives is already working out of the office, trying to win those votes back.
In solid-blue Madison, NextGen hosts a debate watch party in a narrow University Avenue storefront decorated like a teen bedroom, walls plastered with cutout images of engaged young people and Sharpied with motivational scribblings. There’s pizza, seltzer and cookies, courtesy of billionaire and now presidential candidate Tom Steyer, who pumped $30 million into 10 states to engage young people, before he chose to run for president. NextGen’s state staff of 13 has the goal to get thousands of young people to sign pledge-to-vote cards.
On the north side of Milwaukee, BLOC — Black Leaders Organizing for Communities — has trained 16 paid civic ambassadors to canvas neighborhoods. “We’re making sure that people are engaged and know why elections are important,” Executive Director Angela Lang says of the nonpartisan group.
BLOC has attracted outsize attention, with visits from candidates Julián Castro, Cory Booker and Amy Klobuchar long before the state’s April 7 primary and a donation from Alyssa Milano’s get-out-the-vote fund, among others. Next year, the group plans to more than double its budget and deploy a staff of 100. Says ambassador Keviea Guiden, “It’s the black votes that matter in this election.”
In Paoli, outside Madison, Democratic cheesemaker Anna Landmark is engaging rural liberals who feel overlooked and is trying to get candidates to pay more attention to their issues. “There’s a huge enthusiasm gap for progressive communities, as well as a news desert for many of these areas,” so candidates can’t reach rural constituents, she says at her Landmark Creamery. “People are nervous about talking to their neighbors. Community life has faded.”
To address those issues, the Eau Claire County Democratic Party runs a weekly Thursday-morning coffee klatch to keep voters involved, as well as phone banks two nights a week. The pressure is on in Sauk County, northwest of Madison, a bellwether after correctly predicting Wisconsin’s electoral winner in nine of the past 10 presidential elections. With turnout of 72 percent, Trump won Sauk County by 109 votes.
“When did we start working on the election? We haven’t stopped,” says Tammy Wood, county Democratic chair. The goal is to canvas all 30,000 voters.
Tom Breneman, an Eau Claire brewmaster and former dentist, is a libertarian — part of the 3.6 percent of the state’s electorate who supported Gary Johnson in 2016. He’s against abortion, which rules out a Democrat, but is no fan of the president or his tariffs: “It’s like a car wreck. It’s crazy that he’s president. I’m much more interested in local politics.” He doesn’t say who he’s going to vote for next November but adds, “I’ll probably hold my nose.”
What are Wisconsinites’ issues? Health care, definitely. Tariffs on farming and industry, certainly. To Ed Gorell, a former family farmer who is now a milk hauler in Eleva, it’s the nation’s farm policies, which subsidize corporate consolidation, creating an oversupply that slashes milk prices: “They basically destroyed my business.” At BLOC in Milwaukee, it’s jobs, economic investment, safer communities, schools. Younger voters in Madison? Climate change, gun violence, economic opportunity. Breitenmoser, the dairy farmer from Merrill, is enraged by gerrymandering. At the Packers game, Angela Menehan of Albany says: “Quit worrying about other countries. We need to take care of homeless people.”
Many local political operatives declare their region the key to victory. “The battle for Wisconsin won’t be won simply in Madison and Milwaukee, Waukesha, Green Bay, Racine and Eau Claire,” Baldwin says, before listing most of the state’s eight congressional districts.
The campaign to claim this state will be long, fierce and punitively expensive.
“I don’t know how, following 2016, you could go into this feeling confident at all,” says Brian Westrate, treasurer of the state GOP. “Wisconsin could go either way. Anyone who claims different is lying to themselves.”
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