MOSINEE — Florence Melka used to vote for Democrats. Not anymore.
"It's not the same Democratic Party anymore," Melka, of Hazelhurst, said. "Democrats have become too liberal."
Melka stood next to her friend, Susan Street, of Minocqua, in a hangar at the Central Wisconsin Airport late Wednesday afternoon, hours before President Donald Trump would take the stage. It was their first time attending a Trump rally, and they kept warm in the open air with coats, scarves and "Keep America Great" hats.
"We go to the same church and we vote the same way," Street said, joking that she wouldn't talk to Melka if they didn't share the same political views.
Melka, who voted early, said she doesn't know much about state Sen. Leah Vukmir, but she cast her ballot for the Brookfield Republican who's challenging Democratic U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin. She also voted for Gov. Scott Walker, who she said has done a good job of keeping taxes low.
The most important issues as she goes to the polls, she said, are immigration and taxes.
"I’d like the border shut down. We’re being overrun. We can have people come in legally," Melka said. "It’s nothing against anybody, you just have to come in legally."
By the sound of the crowd of thousands, her views were shared by many in attendance. Walker provoked thunderous boos when he told the crowd his Democratic opponent, state schools superintendent Tony Evers, supports allowing undocumented immigrants working in Wisconsin to obtain driver's licenses.
Street, who was raised in a Republican home but said she considered herself an independent until Trump was elected, now votes "Republican all the way." She's supporting Walker because "he's bringing businesses here, and jobs," and because low taxes are important to her.
"I like the job (Walker)'s done for our state," said Peggy Wall of Hortonville — also attending her first Trump rally. "He’s really turned the state around and brought us jobs. I just have an uplifting feeling."
Walker touted Wisconsin's economy in his appeal to the crowd — an unemployment rate that's been at or below 3 percent for the last seven months and a labor participation rate well above the national average — and warned of massive tax increases if Evers is elected.
He accused Democrats like Evers and Baldwin of "playing politics with people's health care" as he argued that, despite their claims, he will always ensure that health insurers cover people with pre-existing conditions. Vukmir made the same claim, promising to work with the president to do so.
Ninety-three percent of Wisconsin voters surveyed in a recent Marquette University Law School poll said the Affordable Care Act’s requirement that insurance companies cover people with pre-existing conditions is somewhat or very important to them.
Walker has pledged to maintain those protections despite having approved Wisconsin’s participation in a multi-state lawsuit seeking to overturn the ACA and its pre-existing conditions requirements. He has promised to implement those protections at the state level, arguing that the issue is personal to him. His running mate, Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch, is a cancer survivor, and several of his close family members have pre-existing health conditions.
Evers, who is also a cancer survivor, has argued if Walker wants to protect coverage for pre-existing conditions, he should drop the ACA lawsuit. On Monday, he said his first act as governor, if elected, would be to instruct the attorney general to withdraw from the suit.
"Scott Walker and Republicans are on the record trying to gut protections for the 2.4 million Wisconsinites who have pre-existing conditions. It’s no surprise they’re doubling down on these efforts today by bringing Donald Trump to Wisconsin since he shares Walker’s opposition to expanding health coverage and backs Walker's lawsuit that would eliminate pre-existing condition protections," said Evers spokeswoman Britt Cudaback in a statement.
Toward the back of the hangar, Glenn Hovde, of Madison, and Gordy Thielke, of Medford, leaned along the railing that separated reporters from the rest of the crowd. They didn't know each other before the rally, Thielke said — "we're just two old guys with bad backs."
It was the first Trump rally for both.
Hovde, who said he was a Trump supporter from day one, drove to Mosinee on Tuesday night with his wife and was surprised by the size of the crowd and the variety of ages in attendance. They waited in line for three hours to get inside, he said.
"My wife is from South America. She has an expression: 'Wear the pants.' Well, he’s wearing the pants for the country," Hovde said of Trump.
Of Walker, Hovde said: "he’s done a good job of keeping the state financially feasible."
"The roads could be a little better," Thielke chimed in, but said he had no other complaints about Walker.
Both Hovde and Thielke appreciate Vukmir's strong anti-abortion stance.
In addition, Thielke said, "when people start talking about socialism, that really turns me inside-out."
Thielke said he hasn't felt like Baldwin has done enough to stay in touch with constituents outside of the election season. At the same time, he was wary of attacks directed at her based on her office's response to the overprescription scandal at the Tomah VA Medical Center.
Baldwin drew scrutiny in 2015 after reports indicated her office responded slowly to complaints that patients at the veterans health center had been prescribed large amounts of opioids. A staffer, fired from her office, later alleged a political cover-up. Complaints filed over the firing and the office's handling of the issue were dismissed by Senate ethics panels, and Baldwin said she wished her office had done more to follow up on complaints it received from a whistleblower.
"I’m a veteran. I get service from the VA that I find exceptional," Thielke said. "I hate to see them pointing a finger at the VA. I don’t know, I think opioid addiction is way more complicated than the average voter understands."
But the knock on Baldwin resonated with the crowd, which booed loudly when Vukmir accused the senator of letting veterans down.
The crowd also booed at the penned-off area containing reporters and TV cameras during Vukmir's speech, as she claimed the media would not report that Trump has donated his presidential paycheck to the Veterans Administration.
When Vukmir noted that Baldwin "hired Hillary Clinton's attorney" during the aftermath of the Tomah scandal, the crowd broke into a chant of "Lock her up!"
Both Walker and House Speaker Paul Ryan began their remarks by acknowledging the news earlier that day that explosive devices had been sent to targets including CNN, former President Barack Obama and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
Walker and Ryan condemned it as "an act of terrorism."
"An attempt to engage in a terrorist attack against any American is an attack on any American. You mess with one of us, you mess with all of us. I don’t care what party, I don’t care what background," Walker said.
Trump rebuked it as "an attack on our democracy itself."
"No nation can succeed that tolerates violence or the threat of violence as a method of political intimidation, coercion or control," Trump said. "We want all sides to come together in peace and harmony. We can do it. We can do it."
The president urged people to stop viewing political opponents as morally deficient and to not compare them to evil historical figures.
"The media also has a responsibility … to stop the endless hostility and constant negative and oftentimes false attacks and stories," Trump said, prompting cheers from the crowd.
After acknowledging the attacks, Trump delivered a speech that alternated between praise for his own administration and praise for Wisconsin's Republican elected officials.
He touted the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement, or USMCA, as a "giant victory" for Wisconsin farmers, and praised Walker for his work in bringing Foxconn to Wisconsin with a multibillion-dollar incentive package.
With the governor by his side, Trump said Walker would cut taxes, improve schools, bring down health care costs and create "great-paying jobs." Evers, he said, would raise taxes and let "illegal aliens flood into Wisconsin to get free public benefits."
Evers supports offering in-state tuition to so-called Dreamers — undocumented students who were brought to the United States illegally by their parents as young children — and allowing workers who entered the country without legal permission to obtain Wisconsin driver's licenses. Walker launched an ad on Tuesday attacking Evers for supporting "special treatment for illegals."
Former President Barack Obama is set to campaign in Milwaukee on Friday in support of Evers and Baldwin, followed by a visit to Madison next week from former Vice President Joe Biden.
A Marquette University Law School poll released earlier this month showed Walker leading Evers by one point and Baldwin leading Vukmir by 10 points.