WAUKESHA, Wis. — Donald Trump got the big October surprise. The momentum seems to be going his way. Hillary Clinton is again on the defensive, again over her emails. But in this enclave of white, upper-middle-class Republicans, the party’s presidential nominee still faces a barrier that will be difficult to clear.
“It’s a moral choice,” Dick Radder, a 68-year-old Republican, said as he cupped a black coffee outside a Starbucks here Tuesday. “I can’t get there. I can’t get to Trump. I’m a husband and a father. And I can’t convince myself to vote for a person who is weakening the fiber of the country.”
Most of the well-kept lawns here are dotted with signs for Sen. Ron Johnson (R) and for other down-ballot candidates, but support for Trump is less evident.
“You’re in a town that’s about going to college and raising a family. People are polished and hard-working. He’s not one of us,” said Andy Schwichtenberg, a 28-year-old stockbroker.
“I did try,” Schwichtenberg added with a sigh. “I went to a rally.” But he was not swayed and he was turned off by the crowd, which he noted was packed with men and women “who came there on Harleys.”
In the last days of a presidential race where Trump is targeting traditionally Democratic states to try to forge a path to victory, holding together Republicans who have reservations about him remains a vexing challenge for a candidate who has repeatedly clashed with his own party.
Nowhere has that been more true than Wisconsin, a state that celebrates civility and is the historic home of the Republican Party, which was founded in Ripon in 1854.
Trump lost Wisconsin’s April GOP primary by 13 percentage points to Sen. Ted Cruz (Tex.), and he lost in Waukesha County by 39 percentage points. More recent polling has shown lingering unease about his character in this small city and other Milwaukee suburbs, long a hub of deeply conservative Republicans — and where strong turnout will be necessary for Trump to win.
“They have just never been comfortable with Trump,” Charlie Sykes, a popular talk radio host, said in an interview Monday night. “The only question, the only thing people are talking about, is whether they’ll come home.”
Sykes, who has been a leader of anti-Trump efforts within the Wisconsin right, said Trump’s chances will come down to what are called the “wow” counties — Waukesha, Ozaukee and Washington — that need intense GOP participation to offset the heavy Democratic numbers coming out of Milwaukee, Madison and other liberal parts of the state.
Trump, who rallied Tuesday in northwest Wisconsin, is intent on making a late play, pitching himself to independents and working-class voters as someone who channels their economic frustrations.
Trump’s push is reminiscent of how previous Republican nominees have tried with little success in past frenzied final weeks to score blue state upsets when other battlegrounds started to look less likely to go their way. Mitt Romney, for example, drew huge November crowds in Pennsylvania in 2012 but lost the state by five percentage points.
Still, Trump’s advisers hope that the FBI’s announcement last week that the agency is resuming its investigation of Clinton’s emails could be enough of an impetus for Wisconsin Republicans to finally decide to vote a straight party ticket, even if they will never warm up to him.
The campaign’s view, voiced in several interviews, is that if Trump can spark Republicans in the suburbs and rural regions, the party organization here is ready to gin up turnout.
“You do have a bit of a feathered nest,” Trump campaign manager Kellyanne Conway said, noting that Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus, who is from Wisconsin, and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker have built a robust state party over the past decade that has made significant gains in non-presidential years.
“I tell people to remember that we’re not hiring a pope,” Laurie Bujack, 57, said as she made calls at a bustling county GOP field office decorated with a crucifix, posters of Ronald Reagan and a life-size cutout of the local GOP hero, House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (Wis.).
Nearby, Chuck Bloom, a retired 73-year-old salesman in a Trump T-shirt, said he identifies with those who were not with Trump at the start — he certainly was not. But now, he said, is “no time to be on the fence” or have “your nose out of joint.”
“It could be Hillary, God forbid,” he said.
Trump and his running mate, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, campaigned Tuesday alongside Walker, a familiar face in the Milwaukee suburbs and who clashed with Trump in the primaries. Republicans are hoping his more recent support will help rally wavering voters.
“The message his being there with Trump sends is: Trump is the Republican candidate. Get behind all of our Republicans,” said Candee Arndt, a veteran activist and longtime friend of Walker. “This is about the Supreme Court and the federal courts. It’s about more than Trump.”
Wisconsin Democrats, meanwhile, are busy rousing their coalition, dubious but slightly unnerved about Trump’s foray into a state that they have won, at times narrowly, since 1988.
“I know what it was like during the times Trump says were ‘good.’ We’re not going back, and I’m trying to tell the young people what’s at stake,” Alma Johnson, 74, said Monday at a phone bank in Milwaukee with dozens of African American Democrats.
In another sign that Clinton is not taking Wisconsin for granted, her campaign last week reserved television advertising time in the state. Her running mate, Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia, appeared at Wisconsin college campuses Tuesday, and her daughter, Chelsea, will make three stops Wednesday.
Clinton, who lost the Wisconsin primary handily to Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, is getting help from her onetime rival, who will be in Madison and Green Bay on Wednesday to campaign for Clinton and former Democratic senator Russell Feingold, who is locked in a hotly contested race with Ron Johnson.
The polling average in Wisconsin shows Clinton up by nearly six percentage points. President Obama won Wisconsin by about seven percentage points over Romney and by 12 percentage points in 2008. President George W. Bush came far closer in 2000 and 2004, losing both times by a few thousand votes.
By Tuesday afternoon, more than 518,000 early votes had already been cast, according to the state’s elections commission. For Democrats, the data was seen as favorable since about 30 percent came from the urban part of Milwaukee and the Madison area — more than the 26 percent of statewide ballots those counties provided in 2012.
Making calls Monday night with Democrats, Hazel Frazier, 65, argued that working-class whites are not sure bets for Trump for reasons different from why many wealthier conservatives are averse to him.
“I used to work at General Motors, which has left. When those jobs go, it leaves black people and it leaves white people without what they had,” Frazier said beneath a poster that read in part, “Don’t get frustrated!”
“I’m an old bird, and I don’t buy that working-class folks are going to go for Trump,” she said. “We see through men like him, and we’re sick of the damn emails.”
Early voting is up by similar margins in the “wow” counties — providing 16 percent of the absentee ballots. Four years earlier, those counties counted for 12 percent of the vote.
“You couple the FBI announcement with the organization we’ve built, we feel very good,” said Mike Duffey, the executive director of the Wisconsin GOP. He said there are more than 30 offices in the state prepared to meet new and nontraditional voters who may come out on Election Day to register and vote for Trump.
As Robin Moore, 53, president of the Republican Women of Waukesha County, said Monday: “Republicans here have moved from lesser of two evils to one evil. That’s progress.”
“It’s been hard for some women, and those tensions [with Ryan] didn’t help,” Moore said. “At the end of the day, we have to save the Supreme Court and we have to stop her.”