Walking in downtown Madison, it’s not uncommon to encounter people wearing face coverings outdoors, a near-constant reminder of the COVID-19 crisis. But in communities like Hudson, in northwestern Wisconsin, the pandemic feels far away.
For Hudson teacher Alleyne Knudson, who said she’s planning to vote for former Vice President Joe Biden for president, the virus is one of the latest topics to divide people in an already hyper-partisan era.
“I think it’s a big issue, obviously. It’s huge,” Knudson, 41, said in a late September interview. “But it just pulls at all of those pieces that we were frustrated with before: the different facts that we’re looking at and how we’re being divisive over something that could be kind of a unifying thing that we do together as a culture.
“There’s definitely been a lot of ‘Do we wear masks? Do we not wear masks?’ ... our community kind of has different perspectives on that.”
In an election year like no other, Wisconsin finds itself once again at the center of the political universe. But this time, it’s also struggling with one of the nation’s worst COVID-19 outbreaks in recent weeks.
The confluence is leaving candidates, campaigns and organizers in some parts of the state looking to strike a balance between reaching voters and minimizing potential spread of the virus — though the emphasis varies across individuals, parties and regions.
President Donald Trump’s recent COVID-19 diagnosis has put a renewed focus on the issue, which is among the Republican incumbent’s weakest areas of approval in the latest Marquette University Law School poll. Meanwhile, Republican U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson remains in quarantine after contracting the virus himself and Democratic Gov. Tony Evers’ administration has sought to bring the state’s surge in cases under control.
Commenting on the relationship between how seriously voters take the virus and the chances for political success in different parts of the state, one Democratic campaign operative said: “If I go into a gas station and see no one wearing a mask, I know we’re going to lose.”
But the pandemic is just one of a series of considerations driving voters to the polls in an election defined largely by polarizing views of Trump.
“I haven’t seen this type of energy from Republicans since the (2012) recall,” said one GOP operative who has spent much of the year in northern Wisconsin. “But as much as Trump gets his people excited, he infuriates the other side, so Democrats also have a lot of energy.”
In the past, Republicans have counted on the “WOW” counties — Waukesha, Ozaukee and Washington — surrounding Milwaukee to deliver huge margins as they worked to activate rural voters, while Democrats aimed to eat into those areas as they ran up the totals in the liberal strongholds of Madison and Milwaukee.
The same is true this year, though more areas of the state seem to be in play.
Biden has maintained a four-to-six percentage point lead over Trump among likely voters in the last six Marquette University Law School Polls, with the latest showing Biden with 46% support to Trump’s 41%. But given Trump’s 2016 narrow margin of victory (he won by 22,748 votes), neither party, nor their voters, are taking anything for granted.
Not ceding the doors
It’s a point of pride for Trump’s Wisconsin operation that Republican volunteers are still going door-to-door to talk to voters.
And it’s something, one volunteer based in Milwaukee County said, that will continue to be a focal point following the president’s recent break from the campaign trail after he contracted COVID-19.
“Definitely it just makes us push even more to be out and about spreading his message,” said Christina Nelson, vice chair of Wisconsin Young Republicans. “I feel like no matter what, our job on the ground game is always ground-zero important.”
Trump has visited Wisconsin five times since January, with a planned sixth trip to Green Bay and Janesville on Oct. 3 canceled after he tested positive for the virus. He has a fundraiser planned for Janesville on Saturday. Biden, who has sought to minimize his travel, has come to the state twice, while his campaign has focused on digital outreach through video events, social media and phone banking.
Without the big rallies and the media coverage they bring, Wisconsin volunteers are keeping up their in-person canvassing efforts in the closing weeks of the campaign. Trump Victory (a combination of the Trump campaign and the Republican National Committee) claims to have reached more than 12 million voters through phone banking and door knocking, and knocked on over 2 million Wisconsin doors as of this past weekend, according to a spokeswoman.
Nelson, a Capitol staffer and campaign manager for a Republican Assembly candidate, is among the volunteers who have been dropping off literature at homes. The 31-year-old drew comparisons from the 2020 campaign to others she’s worked over the last few years.
“It’s all voter contact, direct voter contact,” she said Saturday while walking a route in Franklin, a suburb of about 36,000 in southwest Milwaukee County. “Just talk to as many people (as possible), get your door numbers in. You see that in every election: 2016 presidential, 2018 gubernatorial race. It’s all just trying to talk to as many people as possible.”
Using the Campaign Sidekick app, Nelson identified homes to visit in a Franklin neighborhood located just east of what pundits like to call “crucial Waukesha County,” a Republican mainstay that Trump carried by 27 percentage points four years ago.
Wearing a mask, she approached houses, knocking before stepping back a few feet to wait for someone to answer. If no one did, she hung a Trump flier on the handle and move on, logging that information into the app. If someone answered the door, she ran through a list of questions about the voter’s preferences before continuing to the next house.
At one home, 38-year-old Franklin resident John, who declined to share his last name, said he didn’t think it was fair for “certain news channels” to blame Trump and the nation broadly for COVID-19 when individual states and localities are the ones putting in place their own orders to combat the virus.
“He doesn’t micromanage everything, even though he wants to,” said John, a self-described “lean Republican” voter who supported Trump in 2016 and plans to do so again this year because “I can’t stand Biden.”
Anticipating that Trump’s positive COVID-19 diagnosis wouldn’t affect his chances for victory, John said it appeared the president had a contingency plan in place in case he contracted the virus, where he would “come out saying, ‘I’m fine, I’m powerful, I’m strong enough to do this.’”
“They have a plan; they know what’s going on,” he said. “And maybe this is me being naive, but I think if they didn’t want the public to know about it, he’s the president; he could probably conceal it a little bit.”
With the presidential race the only statewide contest on Wisconsin ballots this year, Trump, who benefitted from a reverse-coattail effect from Johnson in 2016 (Johnson received 70,000 more votes than Trump), will have to stand on his own.
Republican strategist Bill McCoshen said while there’s “no doubt” Johnson’s helped Trump in 2016 — particularly in the WOW counties where he outperformed Trump — the president should have no problem leading the ticket after four years in office.
“I don’t think Trump needs that this time around,” McCoshen said. “They know who he is and they understand his record.”
On the Biden campaign, officials initially avoided the doors, claiming the moral high ground and bashing Republicans for unnecessarily risking lives. But they abruptly back-tracked when they announced earlier this month volunteers would be visiting homes in swing states.
A Wisconsin Biden campaign official didn’t say if or when door knocking would begin in Wisconsin, but he said the operation “will continue to ramp up our in-person activity leading into election day” while adhering to public health guidelines.
He also noted the in-person, socially distanced events the campaign has hosted in Wisconsin surrounding Biden and his campaign surrogates, supplementing the work done by volunteers from the Wisconsin Coordinated Campaign (a joint effort between the Biden campaign and Wisconsin Democratic Party) to hold conversations with voters through virtual events, text messages, phone calls, direct mail, social media and the “Vote Joe” app.
In all, he said, more than 300 neighborhood action teams have worked across the state in the last several months to complete over 35,000 shifts in which they talked to voters through phone banking, texts and more.
Activating Black voters — virtually
One prominent community organizing group that favors progressive candidates is working to connect with and activate Black voters in Milwaukee in every way it can to bolster turnout ahead of Nov. 3.
But in recent weeks, news about the Trump campaign’s efforts to discourage Black voters in 2016 is “pushing a lot of us to give it a little bit more” as election day approaches, the group’s founder said in a recent interview.
“I just think everyone feels a stronger sense of urgency about why we need to make sure that we’re showing up,” said Angela Lang, executive director of Black Leaders Organizing for Communities. “And it’s very clear that we have data and research to support the fact that they don’t want us to participate and that’s exactly why we need to.”
In 2016, the Trump campaign categorized 3.5 million Black Americans as voters they wanted to deter from participating in the election, according to the U.K.’s Channel 4 News, which obtained a database with information about some 200 million U.S. voters used by the Republican’s campaign four years ago.
The database showed that in Wisconsin, where Black people make up 5.4% of the population, they represented 17% of those categorized for “Deterrence.” Many of those voters live in North Milwaukee, where BLOC is doing much of its organizing work. In all, 70% of Wisconsin’s African American residents live in Milwaukee County.
Lang noted Black voters are often the target of suppression tactics, but said it’s those types of institutional or campaign attacks that are difficult to combat. Still, she credited BLOC’s year-round engagement with residents and voters as a way to help share historical context in this area and others.
“All of the things that we’re seeing playing out now, this did not happen overnight,” she said. “And to hear this continually happening, it’s not necessarily a shocker to us but it just goes to show that all of the campaign promises, all of the records that they try to tout about how great they’ve been for our community, it’s really disingenuous now because you don’t actively want our vote. You’re actually trying to suppress it.”
Between former President Barack Obama’s 2012 victory and Trump’s 2016 win, Black turnout in Wisconsin fell by 19%.
Lang established BLOC in the wake of Trump’s win, seeking to “build transformational, not transactional, relationships” throughout the community and Wisconsin, engaging individuals on the issues not just during a campaign, but every day of the year on local, state and federal issues.
BLOC’s engagement efforts for the bulk of this year have largely taken the form of texting or phone banks, Lang said, though the organization also launched small-scale events to hand out masks and dropped off early voting information homes ahead of the Aug. 11 primary.
Lang said the group is also reaching out on some of the big topics of the election — health care, access to abortion and the overall impact of the Supreme Court — motivated in part by the recent passing of Justice Ruth Badger Ginsburg and Trump’s nomination of Amy Coney Barrett to succeed her.
But people, she added, are “very strongly motivated by the fact that Donald Trump himself is someone that is not fit to lead and do basic things like denounce white supremacy,” referencing his comments during the first presidential debate directing right-wing group the Proud Boys to “stand back and stand by.”
Noting Wisconsin’s “own trauma that we’re dealing with” in the form of 17-year-old Illinois resident Kyle Rittenhouse’s killing of two proesters and shooting of a third at an August protest in Kenosha following the police shooting of Jacob Blake, Lang said Trump’s rhetoric is “not even a dog whistle anymore. It’s a flat-out bullhorn.”
“There is a right side of history to be on, and I think people need to reconcile with that in addition to everything else that they’re thinking about in how they’re casting a ballot in November,” she said.
‘Yard signs don’t vote’
In some parts of the state, campaign imagery is doing a lot of the talking.
That includes Hudson in traditionally conservative St. Croix County on the Wisconsin-Minnesota border. Some residents there said they don’t ever recall seeing the community as openly partisan over an election cycle.
Front yards in this Minneapolis-St. Paul suburb of about 14,000 sport multiple signs blaring support for candidates up and down the ballot, often with competing messages dotting a neighbor’s yard.
One homeowner surrounded a half-dozen yard signs — backing Trump, Republican U.S. Rep. Tom Tiffany, legislative GOP candidates and police officers — with security fencing and surveillance cameras along with a warning to passersby: “Private property. Security cameras in use.”
For Knudson, the Hudson teacher, picking up a Biden sign from the St. Croix County Democratic Party office in downtown Hudson last month was a big deal. She’s never put up a sign before, she said, opting to have conversations instead of appearing to be entrenched in partisan politics.
“It does feel, kind of, that it’s a time in history that you have to draw a line in the sand or something,” she said, “which is also making me sound super divisive too, though, when I say it that way.”
Liberals have held control of the St. Croix County Board since the 2011 passage of Act 10, former Republican Gov. Scott Walker’s signature legislation that rolled back the collective bargaining rights of most public employees, and the failed attempt to recall him for it. More recently, Democratic state Sen. Patty Schachtner, of nearby Somerset, won a January 2018 special election in the 10th Senate District, which includes most of St. Croix County. And voters split 51%-49% in the 2020 state Supreme Court race, with former conservative Justice Dan Kelly barely carrying the area.
But Trump won the county by 18 percentage points in 2016. And in the current political environment, with voters overwhelmingly focused on the presidential race, questions linger about how down-ballot races will be affected in places like Hudson.
Local Democratic Assembly candidate Sarah Yacoub, who’s challenging second-term River Falls Republican Rep. Shannon Zimmerman in the 30th District, said she found there’s “more of an opportunity to personalize the race” because voters she talks to find it “refreshing for people who identify on both sides of the aisle.”
Praising the Biden ticket as one “defined by empathy, by leadership, by experience, compassion, strength,” Yacoub said she was “very excited” to be part of that message.
“I like being the weakest link of a given chain because I can work harder myself,” the 36-year-old Hudson lawyer and former Los Angeles County deputy district attorney said in an interview at the end of September. “I can’t change anybody else or do anything if someone else is the weakest link, so being at the bottom of the ticket is a fun position for me.”
While many voters are eager to talk politics, Hudson retiree Dave Drewiske, who is planning to vote for Trump again this year, is more tight-lipped about the subject in his day-to-day life.
“I usually interact with people for some other purpose and I don’t want politics to get in the way,” Drewiske, 65, said. “If we’re brought together, whether it’s matters of faith, education, sports, environment, those are all too important. It’s hard enough to get stuff done (without these) points of friction.”
Within the political system, finding a way to reach a “bipartisan resolution of important issues” is crucial for Drewiske. Saying he never votes a straight ticket (he supported Schachtner in 2018), he noted the practice “is bad in the long term.”
Though he called out Trump for “doing stupid things” and acting too impulsively, Drewiske praised the administration’s “very aggressive” efforts to clean up toxic Superfund sites, among other things. As a former employee at a manufacturing company, he also noted the importance of having “good paying jobs at home” and rolling back areas where small and start-up businesses were “over-regulated.”
North Hudson retiree Robert Cizek, 72, is much more outspoken about his political views. Returning as Republican Party volunteer, Cizek said he was motivated to volunteer in 2016 for the first time by thoughts of his grandchildren, who he didn’t want “to grow up in an America that was socialist, basically.”
“In 2016, I had a choice of either Trump or (Hillary) Clinton,” said Cizek, who also ran unsuccessfully for county board in the spring. “I didn’t know Trump, but I didn’t like Clinton. And so I voted for Trump, hoping that he would follow through on his promises.”
When asked about his biggest fears under a potential Biden administration, the self-identifying “value voter” questioned Biden’s competency and worried he’d be “controlled by the radical left.”
That, he argued, would lead the county “down the path of socialism, Marxism, communism. That’s the path that Joe Biden and the radical left want to take.” That’s a key line of attack that Trump and his allies have been pushing against the largely conventional Biden.
Two other Hudson-area voters, Liana Frey and Whitney Qualls, said they’d prefer to see Biden and the Democratic Party embrace more left-leaning policies. Supporters of Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders’ presidential bids, Frey and Qualls plan to vote for Biden out of a sense of “obligation.”
Still, they have reservations. Among other issues, they worry that Biden, who Qualls, 28, called a “center-right candidate,” wouldn’t do enough in the White House to address racism and combat white supremacy.
Qualls, a first-year Ph.D. student who lives in nearby Prescott, also wondered that progressives running locally would not have as much luck getting elected with Biden setting a moderate tone in the White House, noting that state and local government is “where real change is enacted.”
“I wish that there were candidates that I felt a little bit more passionately about instead of a little bit more (centrist) because I think that we can do better,” said Frey, 31, who recently moved to St. Paul after living in Hudson and Prescott. “I wish there was something people were excited about instead of fear-based.”
“Any platform will do, just one thing,” interjected Qualls.
“Yeah,” Frey agreed.
“Give me any platform that you have a policy on and are excited about, you know what I mean?” Qualls continued, as they both laughed. “He seems to be running on ‘not Trump.’”
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“I haven’t seen this type of energy from Republicans since the (2012) recall. But as much as Trump gets his people excited, he infuriates the other side, so Democrats also have a lot of energy.”