WEST SALEM — Thousands packed into a West Salem race track to see President Donald Trump on the same day Wisconsin reported a record number of new COVID-19 cases and deaths.
One week before Election Day, the Tuesday rally outdoors at the La Crosse Fairgrounds Speedway was Trump’s third trip to the state in the past 10 days amid polls showing him trailing former Vice President Joe Biden.
There was little social distancing in the crowd, most of whom went without masks only a few hours after state officials reported a record 5,262 new cases of COVID-19, including 84 in La Crosse County, and 64 deaths.
But as in other recent appearances, Trump insisted the pandemic was on the wane.
“We’re turning the corner. We’re rounding, like this racetrack,” he said.
Ahead of the event, local doctors and officials urged the campaign to cancel, fearful that it could become a hotbed for the virus.
“President Trump refuses to listen to science,” said Rep. Jill Billings, D-La Crosse, during a call with local leaders Monday. “And President Trump is planning a super-spreader event right here in our backyard.”
Other Republicans at Tuesday’s rally, including state Senate candidate Dan Kapanke, were critical of Democrats’ response to the pandemic, calling to reopen schools, churches and businesses.
Trump’s approach to the pandemic has shifted slightly in recent weeks, and he has used his own recovery from the virus to downplay the danger it presents for everyday Americans, despite the fact that cases, deaths and hospitalizations are rising all over the country, including in Wisconsin.
Trump claimed Tuesday that the pandemic was being used as a political tool against him, suggesting media coverage of the latest COVID-19 surge would dissipate on Nov. 4, the day after the election.
And he was critical of Biden’s plan for dealing with the pandemic and public safety measures put into place by Democratic Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers.
“We gotta open up our states,” he said. “You gotta tell your governor, we gotta open up our states. Does anybody like your governor? Do you like him?”
Wisconsin is viewed as a must-win for both Biden and Trump, who won it in 2016 by fewer than 23,000 votes.
After encouraging people to vote early, Trump shifted to making unfounded claims Tuesday about ballot counting and absentee voting, and referred to the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision Monday affirming that ballots arriving after Election Day in Wisconsin would not be counted. Democrats had pushed for an extended deadline, citing disruptions caused by the pandemic.
“Now they say we’d like to get the ballots and maybe get them within a few days of the election, and we’ll take 10 days to count them up. Oh good, let’s let the whole world wait while you count your ballots,” Trump said. “And you know what happens while they’re counting them? They’re dumping more ballots in there. Where did they come from?”
Election experts have repeatedly said there is no evidence of widespread voter fraud in American elections.
In addition to Kapanke, the creator and CEO of MyPillow, Mike Lindell, and Derrick Van Orden, who is running for Wisconsin’s 3rd Congressional District against incumbent Ron Kind, spoke ahead of Trump’s remarks.
“The time is now, because we know what the Democrats stand for. They have let us know that,” Kapanke told the crowd, criticizing Democrats’ response to COVID-19 and their stances on gun control, police reform and abortion rights.
Kate Constalie, spokesperson for the Democratic Party of Wisconsin, in a statement said it was “laughable that Dan Kapanke is critical of the Dems’ COVID response when he is vying to be part of a Republican caucus that has refused to help small businesses, families, schools and communities over the last 200 days.”
Vice President Mike Pence and his wife are set to visit Wisconsin on Wednesday, and Biden has plans to be in the state Friday, although details of his visit haven’t yet been announced.
Photos: Wisconsin political yard signs with a little extra attitude