Kaufman: Taking the pulse of Wisconsin

“No one is kicking in a dime for our retirement. And now they’re paying people more to sit home than to work? Nuts.”

MINONG, Wis. — My travels found me traversing county roads and state highways this week across the Badger State. 

Wisconsin is, of course, one of the three big Midwestern states President Trump flipped in 2016, and among several others he must hold this fall to win reelection. 

The scaled-back-Biden-less Democrat Convention commences on Aug. 17 in Milwaukee, and statewide primaries are Tuesday. There are no U.S. Senate races, or a gubernatorial contest this year in Wisconsin; but in addition to the presidential decision, seven congressional races occur. 

Western Wisconsin may have been the most vital region in America four years ago. Several counties flipped from blue to red as the president was aided by hard and successful campaigning from Sen. Rob Johnson, Reince Priebus, then-House Speaker Paul Ryan and then-Gov. Scott Walker. Only a few congressional districts are competitive but the two I visited are geographically-massive and evolving.  I gathered some anecdata over three days.

La Crosse sits along the Mississippi River in its eponymous county. Long a Democrat stronghold, Trump lost here by nine points in 2016.

My friend graduated from UW-La Crosse about 12 years ago and now works in minor league baseball. Raised in a liberal family, he married young and worked in small business, thus drifted right. He’s not a huge Trump fan but will reluctantly vote for him; he loved Ryan and Walker, and doesn’t mind his current representative Ron Kind. “Kind is a rare moderate Democrat, who wins year after year despite this being an evenly-split district and Trump winning it last time,” he said.

Kind has a primary challenger in former physician Mark Neumann. Two political newcomers hope to deliver the seat to the GOP in November: health care publicist Jessi Ebben and former Navy SEAL Derrick Van Orden.

The Third District is mixed politically due to college towns, Eau Claire and La Crosse, but it’s otherwise mostly farmland to the Minnesota border along the river. 

I found myself moving north late Monday, passing through Manitowish Waters, a small vacation destination surrounded by state forests. I spoke to two well-dressed women on vacation. Both were teachers, it turned out, and the only masked-up people roaming the lakefront. Considering my opinions on the current state of education, I didn’t want to engage too deeply; my thoughts were mostly confirmed when I noticed a faded “Co-exist” sticker on their Subaru.

I crossed into Michigan’s Upper Peninsula Tuesday (borders are fluid on rustic roads and not always marked) and stumbled upon a middle-aged guy with a Trump cap and his wife. From central Wisconsin, he voted Democrat much of his life, but switched after 9/11. He is also a Gulf War veteran and electrician. She retired from the Department of Corrections last year.

“I belong to the IBEW, but public sector unions aren’t the same,” he said. “Too often they fleece the taxpayer and now they’re hurting children and parents. I mean, look at school closures.”

The Seventh was Sean Duffy‘s district for almost a decade before his sudden retirement last year. The area is outdoorsy, rural and working class, with foundries and factories. Forests, pristine lakes and scenic rivers also bring tourism, particularly boating, hiking and snowmobiling. Tom Tiffany represents it since May and has a strong chance to be elected to a full term.

Seeking some authentic locals, I hit up a curbside cafe somewhere between Mellen and Montreal in Wisconsin’s mining region. An older man and his wife run a popular food truck in front of their home. They specialize in broasted chicken; he’s also a handyman, painter and carpet cleaner. Resourceful, indeed.

Like the Duffys, they raised several children in nearby Hayward. Neither knew the Democrat option for congress other than “she’s some liberal from Wausau” about 130 miles south. They like Rep. Tiffany from what they see and plan to vote for Trump. 

“We both just turned 70 and have worked 50 years of our lives,” he said. “No one is kicking in a dime for our retirement. And now they’re paying people more to sit home than to work? Nuts.”

One other area to watch is the First District in southeast Wisconsin, represented for two decades by former Speaker of the House Paul Ryan. Two young would-be politicians — Josh Pade and Roger Polack — face off in the Democrat primary. The winner takes on first-term Rep. Bryan Steil, a Ryan protege, in the general election. The district moved Republican in recent years due to working-class voters.

So Wisconsin may not have an exciting night Tuesday but in November it will be dramatic — including a special guest on the ballot.