Last week, Donald Trump held a rally for a throng of his followers at a hotel in Janesville, Wisconsin, a mid-sized city about 35 miles south of Madison.
Once upon a time, Janesville was best-known as the home of a massive General Motors plant. But the plant was closed in 2009, and now the community is best known as the hometown of U.S. House Speaker Paul Ryan.
Janesville would seem to be an ideal city for a Trump rally, a place where it’s not hard to find his base: white, working-class voters who have been scarred by the Great Recession and the globalization of the economy.
As usual, it wasn’t just Trump supporters at the rally, though. A number of Trump protesters also were gathered outside the hotel, including Melissa Sargent, who happens to be a Democratic member of the Wisconsin State Assembly.
Why would a Democratic politician bother with a Trump rally when her own party is having a tight race between Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton?
“I haven’t endorsed [either Sanders or Clinton],’’ Sargent said. “I am comfortable with either of them. But what’s happening with Trump concerns me greatly. His tone and his messages are scary to me.”
It’s not surprising a Democrat would carry such anti-Trump feelings, of course. But it’s become increasingly clear that a large number of Republicans in Wisconsin don’t much like Trump either. In fact, Wisconsin appears to be the place where the GOP is making its strongest stand to date against the New York businessman; polls show him losing by as many as 10 points in Tuesday’s primary.
It might have been different. While Wisconsin was never set up to be an easy place for Trump to triumph, it’s also clear that his campaign completely whiffed on the Badger State. There are many reasons for that, of course, but the most succinct explanation might be the one recently offered up by Charlie Sykes, Wisconsin’s king of conservative talk radio.
“You can’t parachute in here from Manhattan,’’ Sykes recently told his audience, “and crap on everything we’ve been doing for the last 20 years.’’
Echoes of Wallace
Wisconsin has always been a place of bipolar politics. This is the state that voted for Eugene McCarthy in a presidential primary and elected Joe McCarthy to the U.S. Senate. A state whose governors have ranged from the patron saint of progressives, Robert LaFollette, to the union-busting Walker.
How did Trump fit in to this curious mix? While Trump’s campaign has often been compared to that of George Wallace, the parallels are particularly apt in Wisconsin, where the segregationist Alabama governor stunned the nation by getting 34 percent of the vote in the state’s 1964 Democratic primary.
In fact, the things being said about Wallace by establishment Democrats back then closely follow a lot of the stuff being said about Trump by establishment Republicans now.
Then: “Given the election laws of Wisconsin any kook — and I consider him a kook — can cause trouble,” said Democratic party chairman J. Louis Hanson. “This man is being supported by extreme right-wing elements who are probably kookier than he is.’’
Now: “Donald Trump is a phony, a fraud,” said Mitt Romney. “His promises are as worthless as a degree from Trump University.’’
Matthew Prigge, a historian and writer in Wisconsin, has studied Wallace’s 1964 performance in the state and notes the similarity in the men’s political base. “They both play to the same lower-class white guy,” said Prigge. “Both are playing on the same fears and anxieties. Wallace had huge support on the south side of Milwaukee. Back then, jobs were starting to leave the city and that was creating more of a racial anxiety. I think you see that same racial and economic component with Trump.”
An odd strategy
Sargent, the Democratic member of the state’s assembly, said the crowd of Trump supporters she saw in Janesville didn’t seem like Republicans to her. She said the people — mostly white men — might have been like many of the crowds Jesse Ventura drew in Minnesota in 1998.
“I had the feeling they were a new demographic,” Sargent said. “It just felt like they were people who hadn’t been involved in politics before this. It felt like they were at the rally because Trump is an entertainer. He’s famous because he’s been on TV. They came to be entertained.”
But the crowds in Wisconsin have been smaller for Trump than elsewhere, and he’s been stuck in neutral while other candidates, namely Sen. Ted Cruz, have surged in the polls.
What’s different about Wisconsin from those other places where Trump has won is that most of the state’s Republicans still respect the state GOP’s power elite. Paul Ryan is popular. Walker — despite his less-than-stellar job approval rating statewide — is still thought of favorably by most of the state’s Republicans.
And Trump couldn’t help but be Donald Trump.
“He had an odd strategy,” Prigge said. “Wisconsin Republicans seem to like that down-home sort of candidate, like [former Gov.] Tommy Thompson and Walker. The billionaire came in from New York and said bad things about them. I can’t understand what he was thinking.’’
Trump is still expected to pull 30 percent of the vote. But polls show that only a small portion of his supporters — mostly from the northwestern portion of the state — are Republicans. A recent Marquette University poll showed that Trump has only a 25 percent approval rating in the most reliably Republican parts of Wisconsin, in the Fox River Valley down to the outer suburbs of Milwaukee and Madison. In the sparsely populated areas of northwestern Wisconsin, by contrast, Trump has a 56 percent favorable rating.
It hasn’t helped that in the days leading up to the primary, Trump has been tripped up over his own comments, the most obvious being his quote about “punishing women” for having abortions.
Turnout expected to be huge
Aside from Trump — a refreshing turn of phrase — there are all sorts of issues that should be of interest to Minnesotans.
For example, consider the fundamental difference between the level of participation in caucuses and primaries, an issue currently being considered at the Minnesota Legislature. In Minnesota, there was a near record turnout on caucus night, with roughly 10 percent of the state’s registered voters participating at often chaotic, overcrowded caucus sites. Today, election officials in Wisconsin expect that nearly 40 percent of the state’s registered voters will turn out.
Much of the reason has nothing to do with Trump, Ted Cruz, John Kasich, Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders, though. Local elections are expected to drive voters to the polls, thanks in large measure to Walker-inspired budget cuts, which have created emotional debates across the state.
In fact, if you cross the St. Croix River and drive through small Wisconsin towns, you’ll see far more school board election signs than signs for presidential candidates.
Unlike Minnesota, Wisconsin also has become a state of costly, partisan races for the state’s Supreme Court. Incumbent Justice Rebecca Bradley, who was appointed to the court by Walker, is facing off against state appeals court Judge JoAnne Cloppenburg, the choice of liberals in the state. Each have raised more than $500,000 for the race, while political action groups have tossed in millions more.
And still another element of Wisconsin’s primary for Minnesotans to ponder: This election is considered the first big test of the state’s voter ID provision, which says that everyone must show a photo ID in order to cast a vote. If a voter forgets to bring one to the polling place, the forgetful person can cast a “provisional” ballot, though the voter must return to election officials with an ID by Friday for that provisional ballot to be counted.
But the national story will be the presidential primaries. At stake for Republicans are 42 delegates, 24 of which will be allocated based on the results in Wisconsin’s eight congressional districts. The remaining 18 will be bound to the candidate who wins the most votes statewide.
On the Democratic side, Sanders and Clinton are vying for 96 delegates. Eighty-six of those will be decided on the results in congressional districts. The other 10 slots will go to so-called superdelegates.
Yet the biggest story of all would be if Wisconsin, with its wild and unpredictable election history, became the state that spelled the beginning of the end for Trump.