HAYWARD, Wis. — The local Democrats had hoped for 25 people to show up at the meeting, and they set up a dozen more chairs to be safe. By 12:30, 75 Democrats were crowding the VFW community center, some from as far as 90 miles away. They spent two hours venting to Thomas Perez, a candidate for chairman of the Democratic National Committee, about how the party had blown it in rural America.
“I talked to neighbors, to working people, and they felt that the Democrats no longer represented working peoples’ interests,” said Steve Smith, a former state legislator from Wisconsin’s rural north woods who had lost his seat to a Republican in 2014. “I was shocked, but they were speaking from their heart. And in the 2016 election, rural America abandoned Democrats, because they felt like Democrats had abandoned them. We’ve got to use acute hearing and figure out how that happened.”
Perez scribbled in his notebook.
“I don’t think our 7th District congressional candidate got any support,” said Kim Butler, the new Democratic chair of Polk County — population 43,476. “We need some seed money for these people. Our candidate was a fighter. She worked her — ” she stopped herself from cursing. “She worked really hard.”
Perez took another note.
“There’s a sign where I work that says, ‘No one cares how much you know until they know how much you care,’ ” said Mark Neumann, a local physician. “That’s how people feel in the backwaters of the Democratic Party.”
Since their shocking loss to President Trump, Democrats have watched protest movements grow in the cities that had rejected his campaign. They linked arms with the protesters, from relatives to civil rights attorneys, who swarmed airports to protest the president’s orders closing the border to refugees, immigrants and citizens from seven majority-Muslim countries.
Democrats also knew that those voters didn’t make up the balance of power, or a path back to control of Congress. That was up to rural voters, especially the ones who’d voted twice for Barack Obama then given Trump his margins in the Rust Belt. Across the Midwest, 50 counties had flipped; Hayward’s Sawyer County had given 50 percent of its vote to Obama in 2012, and just 38 percent to Hillary Clinton in 2016.
In conversations at the VFW and elsewhere, Democrats in rural Wisconsin described a party that had gone to sleep on them — and, on their own part, a flurry of activity since Jan. 20. In the 7th District, which Rep. Sean P. Duffy (R-Wis.) won in 2010 after the retirement of long-serving Democrat David R. Obey, a half-dozen progressive groups have sprung up, from the coast of Lake Superior to the north to the suburbs of Eau Claire to the south.
“This is not a bunch of young people in New York, like Occupy,” said Tara Woolpy, who along with her husband, Jerry, had helped organize a new group, Northwoods Progressives, out of Minocqua, population 4,859. “We’re still a minority, but we’re a bigger minority than it looked like we were.”
In northern Wisconsin, “resistance” groups have sprung up with stories similar to the ones in larger cities. The Women’s March of the Northwoods, in Minocqua, grew out of a women’s book club that was working through “The Gifts of Imperfection,” a self-help study. At a lunch after one meeting, a group of women realized it would be a struggle to join a Women’s March in Madison, so they got a permit for Minocqua.
“I hadn’t done much activism since some Take Back the Night rallies in college,” said Natayla Graf, 45, who helped organize the march.
Hundreds of people joined the march, and dozens kept showing up for protests. Organizing, Northwoods progressives said, happened quickly online and in response to the president’s actions. On Feb. 4, about 50 marchers held a solidarity rally at Rhinelander Airport, even though no refugees or foreign travelers were set to arrive. The rally began at 4:30 p.m., during the only flight of the day.
Northwoods activists have not yet had a chance to test their electoral clout, or to do what has attracted massive attention elsewhere — swarm a town hall held by a member of Congress. Duffy, born in Hayward, said in an interview that town halls were coming — he held dozens, in a contrast with Obey — and that critics “have a right to petition their congressman.” He just wasn’t sure what the resistance was accomplishing, or what it hoped to accomplish.
“Wisconsin’s different,” Duffy said. “People have a sense of fair play. People look at the way Mr. Trump has been treated, and it’s clearly been unfair. Look at the Women’s March, and it’s been unfair. Save some jobs for people who were going to lose them at Christmas. What they were protesting was not his policy. It was that he was elected in the first place. And Wisconsin’s been through that with Scott Walker.”
In Wisconsin and elsewhere, the Walker experience has loomed even as the resistance has organized. Exactly six years ago, when Gov. Walker and a Republican majority rode into Madison, progressives met his agenda of spending cuts and union rights rollbacks with a historic protest. The state Capitol itself was filled with protesters who slept in hallways; the lawn outside was crammed with signs and bodies.
Walker held them back, and his Republicans gained more power in Madison. In 2016, they gained another state Senate seat in the Northwoods. Activists said that the experience had been bracing, and that years of small meetings and organizing drives for local Democrats had gotten them nowhere. Several agreed that the left had stumbled, in 2012, by forcing a recall vote on Walker that he easily won.
“There just aren’t enough Democratic voters in our gerrymandered districts to help,” said Jerry Woolpy. “And the Democrats are too weak to recruit good candidates. We made a tremendous mistake with the recall of Walker. We gave him tremendous strength as a result.”
Duffy suggested that the new resistance, as seen nationally and in his district, might make similar errors.
“Look at those signs,” he said. “Look at the vulgarity and the female body part suits they’re wearing. Look at CNN carrying it live and not cutting out the f-bombs from the stage. Frankly, while there might be problems with how the pause on refugees from some countries were carried out, if you ask people, they might not say it was executed in the best way, but they want to be safe.”
On Super Bowl Sunday, before Perez arrived, some of the people who gathered in Hayward’s bars to watch the game sided more with Duffy than the resistance. Nick Ciletti, a 28-year old Marine veteran who mixed pills for a pharmacy, noted bitterly that a 17-year old working as a chef made more money.
“I voted for Obama the first time, I didn’t vote in 2012, and then I voted for Trump,” he said as servers at the Gridiron Pub dished out free chicken wings. Clinton had lost him, among other reasons, over her seeming readiness to restrict gun rights.
One block away, at the taxidermy-filled Moccasin Bar, a long-distance trucker named George Hahn said he had voted for Obama in the past but cast a protest vote in 2016 for the Libertarian nominee, Gary Johnson.
“I was worried about the fuel prices,” he explained. “They’re killing us.”
In a dozen conversations, Sawyer County voters who had abandoned Democrats in 2016 said they did not necessarily embrace the Republican platform. They viewed the Democratic Party, especially its 2016 iteration, as lost and elitist. Or, they personally could not stand Clinton.
But at Perez’s listening session, a few of the newly organized progressive activists, and a few who identified themselves as moderates, worried that their neighbors had voted Republican for reasons they could not undo. One suggested that Democrats needed to fight to strip public airwave licenses from networks that were running entertainment or propaganda. Several more worried that Trump had succeeded by setting their neighbors against nonwhite voters, miles or hundreds of miles away.
Looking up from his notebook, Perez suggested that the answer to all of the rural resistance’s challenges was to keep it up. They were organizing; that was why they could win.
“When we over-rely on data analytics and don’t make house calls, we set ourselves up,” Perez said. “When we’re not listening, we set ourselves up.”