‘Fatigue is a factor’: Political exhaustion weighs on voters in rural Wisconsin

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Wisconsin played a central role in Trump’s victory in 2016, with rural and working-class voters leading the rejection of Democrats across the Upper Midwest. Four years later, however, the state remains a key battleground, but one on which Trump lags in the most recent polls.

The hyper-partisanship that has devoured the rest of the nation has not missed the counties that lie along the Mississippi and Wisconsin rivers.

But exhaustion is one of the few things that crosses these hardened party lines. Even people who voted for Trump four years ago and leading Republican operatives in the region told CNN that the chaos surrounding the president left voters under siege weeks before the 2020 election.”Fatigue is a factor,” said Wayde Lawlere, chairman of the Vernon County Democratic Party.

The first presidential debate, which was dominated by Trump yelling and angrily interrupting and Democratic candidate Joe Biden retaliating by calling Trump a “clown,” only reinforced those sentiments.

Seeking to capture this weariness, Lawlere and the County Party paid to have a large billboard set up between the towns of Viroqua and Westby that simply read “I’ve had enough” in block letters before leading people. towards “Vote blue” in November. The sign, flanked by a local hunting and fishing club, John Deere dealership and horse fields, is aimed at weary voters like Sharon Seeley.

The 79-year-old resident of neighboring Grant County voted for Trump in 2016 but now regrets him, extinguished by “his lies.”

“It tires you out,” Seeley said of Trump the day after the first debate. “He’s like a kid in a candy store. If he can’t have a piece, he breaks everything in the store. ”

Lawlere said the feeling of “exhaustion” is something he hears regularly from “people who consider themselves more in the middle of the road,” especially those who voted a little reluctantly for Trump he four years ago because they harbored a deep animosity for Hillary Clinton.

“Most people don’t want the ugliness of the political world to be the focus of their daily news, their conversations and their way to work,” he said. “A lot of people are just fed up with the constant barrage of all the scandal of the day. “

‘The country’s gauge’

The southwestern corner of Wisconsin that borders that state’s eponymous river is known as the No-Drift Zone because its rolling hills avoided the flattening of retreating glaciers imposed on much of the Midwest at the end of the last ice age. According to local candidates, the region has long been home to high concentrations of ticket separators, people who can vote Democrats at the top of the ticket, but support Republicans in local races.

The region was also at the heart of Trump’s victory in Wisconsin four years ago, helping the Republican rack up significant margins in rural counties that had previously backed Democrats. The president remains popular with some voters in the region, where massive Trump signs are as common in the fields as Holstein cows.

Yet there are also clear marks of support from Biden. A number of Biden supporters have hand-painted campaign signs and have placed many on the two-lane lanes that run along the Wisconsin River.

And despite its remoteness, local voters believe issues affecting metropolitan areas still play out here.

“Richland Center is the gauge of the country,” Daniel Miller, owner of Ocooch Books & Libations, said of the Richland County seat. “Everything that happens elsewhere happens here in a proportion that corresponds to the country. ”

Because of this dynamic nature, Republicans and Democrats have focused more on the no-drift zone.

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Trump, before he tested positive for Covid-19, was due to headline an event in nearby La Crosse. Vice President Mike Pence has surprised Republicans across the state with how often he has targeted the western half of Wisconsin. And the Trump campaign says they have “more staff than ever before” in the region, including six field offices.

“The key for Republicans is to stay much more focused on kitchen table issues, on taxes, health care and education and what we think we can do differently,” said Andrew Hitt, president of Wisconsin Republican Party, which has grown up. at Richland Center.

But Hitt admits the region is up for grabs, in part because people are “worn out” by politics.

“If southwestern Wisconsin looks more like an Obama map, it will be difficult for the president to win,” Hitt said. “If this looks like a map of Trump 2016 and everything else sort of stays where it is, that means the president is probably going to win (the state) again. ”

For Ben Wikler, president of the Wisconsin Democrats, it is this exhaustion that is at the heart of the reconquest of these countries.

Exhaustion “tends to be the recipe for elections for change,” Wikler said. “When people don’t like what they get, that’s when they’ll vote for something else. ”

Wikler, winking at that Vernon County billboard, called people like this “the voter had had enough” – “people who don’t want politics to rule everyone. their waking moments, ”he said.

And while people like Bill Biefer, president of the Grant County Republican Party, said enthusiasm for the president remained high among his supporters, he acknowledged that there are clear signs that some voters are simply exhausted. by politics.

“It’s exhausting to put up with all the complete feuds that have been going on for the past four years,” Biefer said. “This constant does nothing. I don’t think it helps a party. “

‘It makes you feel like the end of the world is approaching’

Due to the coronavirus, Shaun Lopez Murphy is one of the only Democrats in Wisconsin to knock on doors.

He must, he says, even have a chance to win a seat in the state assembly in a district that runs from the Wisconsin border with Illinois and Iowa to Richland County.

But what he’s learned is that the reason Biden – and by extension, he – has a chance to win in November is because of a sense of exhaustion with Washington that started under Barack Obama’s presidency. only rose under Trump and became overwhelming in the wake of the first presidential debate.

“It makes you feel like the end of the world is approaching,” Lopez Murphy said of the tenor Trump has been punching in recent weeks. “And the main thing I hear from independents or people who are on the fence is that they want politicians who are going to work for the people, not for the party. They are tired of the elect chasing each other, they are tired of each other looking bad. ”

This knowledge has come through hard work. Murphy has knocked on more than 4,400 doors to date, many of which in rural Wisconsin are miles from each other. In that process, the Democrat says he heard the general belief that neither national Republicans nor Democrats have paid much attention to rural areas.

“If we walk down this main street right now there are several vacancies,” he said, pointing to Wisconsin Avenue from the back porch of Timber Lane Coffee in Boscobel. “You go to some of the small villages and they are almost dead. Their business districts have disappeared. ”

Martin Adams, a 50-year-old machinist from Grant County and one of those voters who met Lopez Murphy on his doorstep, illustrates how getting fed up with politics particularly hurts Trump in the region.

Adams voted third party in 2016 because he felt there was little difference between the two candidates, but this time around, due to his opposition to Trump, he will vote for Biden despite “no not like everything about him ”.

“I really don’t like both,” Adams said of Biden and running mate Kamala Harris. But Trump, Adams said, “is a liar. He has no concerns apart from his own image. He doesn’t care about any of the people. His rhetoric is reprehensible. He’s embarrassing. ”

Kriss Marion, a small farmer and owner of bed and breakfasts in the nearby neighborhood, said the reason for the political changes was continued agricultural bankruptcies in the area.

“There’s a traffic jam in Washington, there’s a traffic jam in Wisconsin and people are feeling pretty hopeless,” said the Democrat who represented parts of Richland and Sauk counties at the state assembly. “And you add that to the desperation people feel about the farm economy and the void people feel about small towns, it’s a lot of exhaustion. ”

Wisconsin, according to local reports and data from the U.S. court system, led the country in farm bankruptcies in 2019, with the number of farm closures jumping 20%.

Jerry Volenec illustrates this phenomenon.

The Grant County dairy farmer voted for Trump in 2016 because he “had problems with the Obama administration” and believed that “maybe having a businessman in the White House, not a politician, could be beneficial to me ”.

But Volenec quickly got worse on Trump, especially when the president’s focus on renegotiating trade deals rocked international trade markets and forced him, for the first time in his career, to sell less. milk than in previous years.

“I’ve had enough and I’m not going to sit down and let this happen anymore,” Volenec said of the slowdown in rural America and agriculture shifting to bigger and bigger businesses. “A lot of these things were set in motion before Trump, but he had a steroid effect on things. “

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