“It looked like a blatant assassination,” said Gacek, 48.
But Gacek’s 401(k) and his IRAs, he said, were doing quite well during President Trump’s term. He has doubled his life savings in four years and could retire now, he said. Trump brought him out of a 20-year voting hibernation in 2016 and has “pretty much” earned his vote again, despite his unease over police brutality issues that have hit close to home.
For Riley Menting, 20, recent events have only solidified her appreciation for Trump. Menting had always figured she was a Democrat because that’s what her high school friends leaned that way. And she has sympathized with the Black Lives Matter cause. Dating a police officer, though, has opened her eyes to the struggles law enforcement officers face daily, she said. Menting recently switched political allegiances.
“I honestly think that Kenosha brings me closer to Trump,” said Menting, a student at the University of Wisconsin at Whitewater. “I totally agree with protesting. I went to a protest for the BLM movement, but I don’t agree with the violence and rioting.”
Four years after Trump stunned Democrats and won Wisconsin by a margin of 22,748 votes, or less than 1 percent, the state’s suburban counties around Milwaukee are once again a critical battleground in the presidential race — and, in the aftermath of recent events down the road in Kenosha, the unexpected crossroads of the nation’s reckonings on racial justice and Trump.
In the towns and small cities near Lake Michigan, the White suburban voters who form the backbone of the Republican Party’s power base in Wisconsin are weighing the visceral White grievance appeals from the president against Democratic nominee Joe Biden’s calls for racial reconciliation. Biden has also criticized looting and violence in the wake of the shooting of Blake, who is Black, by a White officer and the arrest of a White teenager in connection with the killing of two protesters days later.
Trump will likely have to win big here to overcome an expected large turnout in Democratic cities, while Biden’s campaign is angling to eat into the suburban success Trump enjoyed here four years ago.
In a sign of the importance of Wisconsin to both campaigns, Trump and Biden each visited Kenosha last week, but with dramatically different audiences in mind — Trump, flanked by police, touring burned-out ruins of buildings destroyed during an outbreak of violence and Biden meeting with the Blake family and calling for an end to systemic racism.
On Monday, both Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.), Biden’s running mate, and Vice President Pence will visit Wisconsin. Harris will tour a union training facility and speak with Black business leaders in Milwaukee, Pence will speak on the economy in western Wisconsin.
The eruption of civic strife has not yet yielded definitive answers about who will capture the vote-rich counties in the state’s southeastern corner, with polls showing a tight race in the state overall. But the political terrain in Wisconsin has been churning — possibly not to Biden’s benefit — with the respected Marquette Law School poll showing approval numbers for the racial justice demonstrations in the state declining from 61 percent in June to 48 percent in August. And interviews with more than a dozen voters here revealed that Trump’s efforts to present himself as the “law-and-order” candidate are hardening at least a portion of his support base.
Chatting over barbecue chicken wings at Papa Stache Pub and Eatery in Big Bend, Wis., Dawn Haag and Lori Wichman said that they both planned to vote for Trump and that the handling of the Kenosha turmoil only affirmed their decisions.
Wichman, 38, a bartender who said she voted for Barack Obama in 2008 but backed Republican Mitt Romney in 2012, attributes the rioting and property damage in Kenosha to a failure at the local level and not a lack of leadership in the White House.
“It needs to be fiercer, it needs to be just shut down,” Wichman said of the police response to rioting. “A lot of what happened was because of the state and down. It’s not under Trump’s watch. Any president cannot be in charge of everything. He gave all of the rights to all of the local authorities. He gave the governor the chance to do the right thing and [Tony] Evers did not do the right thing.”
Both were in agreement that police officer Rusten Sheskey was justified in shooting Blake seven times in the back. Blake’s family says he is paralyzed but expected to live.
“He had to make a split-second decision to protect himself, his co-workers, the public,” said Haag, 49, a bar owner. “How is that wrong? That’s what they’re trained to do.”
Biden’s efforts to win over the suburbs are complicated by a debate in the state over how Gov. Tony Evers (D), a low-key Democrat who beat GOP incumbent Scott Walker two years ago, has responded to the unrest.
Evers, whose handling of the coronavirus pandemic had lifted his approval numbers earlier this year, deployed the National Guard to Kenosha last month following incidents of arson and vandalism during protests over the Blake shooting.
But Evers’s support among Republicans has dropped as some voters have grown frustrated with his “safer at home” policies. And Trump, who has railed against Democratic governors for their handling of the virus and racial justice demonstrations, has cast himself as tougher than Evers.
“At least the governor asked me if I could,” Trump said Tuesday ahead of his trip to Wisconsin, referring to support from the National Guard. “He finally agreed to even a small number.” But Evers’s office quickly corrected Trump, noting that Evers had already activated the National Guard before Trump offered support and instead had declined Trump’s offer of involvement from the Department of Homeland Security.
Rick Steiner, 71, a retired mechanical engineer in Mount Pleasant, about 13 miles from where Blake was shot, said Evers “sucks” and described him as a “do-nothing puppet.”
Steiner’s wife, Jeanne, a retired health-care worker, said Trump appeared “personable, apologetic and nice” in his visit to Kenosha. They agreed the violence in the city probably hurt Democrats and helped Trump’s reelection bid in the eyes of their peers.
“The violence is so stupid,” Rick said over eggs at Big Apple Bagels in Hales Corners, Wis. “It didn’t prove anything. People are upset and they say, ‘Let’s go torch this car lot.’ And Democrats didn’t care about any rioting and looting until they saw that it looked bad in the polls. And then they go, ‘Oh yeah, we should probably speak out against this,’ and then they blame Trump for everything. How stupid do they think people are?”
Said Jeanne, “Even if I weren’t a prior Republican, this episode would’ve helped cinch the decision to go Trump. I don’t like everything the President does, especially with the tweeting — I mean, grow up — but the Democrats vacillate and keep changing their story and [Trump] reacts and gets things done.”
Despite the challenges, many Democrats are optimistic, pointing to Evers’s victory and the surprise win by liberal candidate Jill Karofsky in April’s election for a seat on the Wisconsin Supreme Court, held on the same day as the state’s Democratic presidential primary. Karofsky beat the conservative incumbent by 11 points, but Republicans argue that win was boosted by turnout for Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) in the primary.
State Rep. Robyn Vining (D), who won a suburban Milwaukee seat in 2018, sees a quiet shift in the region. “The fear message doesn’t resonate with suburban families,” she said. “These suburbs are moving. They don’t like the national message that we are divided, that people are completely against each other. They want to vote for a good person, from the state level to voting for president.”
Maryclaire Torinus, a retired hospice chaplain from Brookfield, Wis., said she voted for John McCain in 2008 and Romney in 2012, but couldn’t bring herself to choose between the lesser of “two evils” in 2016. “I said, well, I don’t vote for evil. I should’ve voted for Hillary [Clinton], but I voted for Governor Kasich,” she said, referring to the moderate former Ohio Republican governor John Kasich, who spoke at this year’s Democratic National Convention.
Torinus, 68, said over coffee at Einstein Bros. Bagels down the street from her home Thursday that she would never again vote Republican. “I couldn’t do it and sleep at night,” she said, pointing to this latest episode in Kenosha as Trump’s latest betrayal of his responsibilities. “It’s a photo op, just like when he stood outside of that church and held the Bible upside down. The fact that he didn’t meet with [Blake’s] family and just came to make headlines is really deplorable and unethical to me. He sows division. He encourages it.”
Torinus said she has lost friends over her anti-Trump stance, which extends to Facebook in the form of status updates. “I’m working on people. It’s Waukesha County, wealthy Republicans,” said Torinus. “I have very few friends voting for Biden, and they’ve told me to stop posting anything involved with politics. But there are also people who reach out to me privately in messages and say they would click ‘like’ on what I’m posting, but they’re afraid to because their husbands and friends are Trump voters. That gives me some hope.”
Democrats are also counting on improved turnout from Black Americans and Latino voters who did not show up for Clinton. Biden’s visit to Kenosha shows that Democrats “aren’t taking this state for granted,” said Milwaukee County Executive David Crowley, who is Black. “People see him paying attention to Wisconsin whether it’s suburban women or Black and Latina women in the city. This isn’t 2016. You’re going to see the vote come back in Milwaukee. People know what’s at stake.”
Holding together Republicans who have reservations about him will be far less of a problem for Trump this time around than in 2016, when pockets of Wisconsin Republicans, who saw themselves as “Paul Ryan conservatives” or “Scott Walker Republicans” balked at some of Trump’s comments, according to interviews with state GOP leaders.
Nowhere was that perhaps more true four years ago than Wisconsin, a state that celebrates civility and is the historic home of the Republican Party, which was founded in Ripon in 1854. But even as Trump dominates the GOP here and nationally, anti-Trump conservative commentator Charlie Sykes, a former Milwaukee-area radio host, said there are suburban Republicans who might sour on Trump in the final stretch.
“It’s so fluid right now,” Sykes said. “But this is Wisconsin, and when you have the president defending a 17-year-old shooter and vigilante violence in Portland, there is the chance of a backlash. It’s not about whether Trump wins or loses the Milwaukee suburbs, it’s about the margin, and my sense is that law and order isn’t the magic bullet he may think it is.”
Sykes acknowledged that the breakaways like himself may be few and far between. “One of the most extraordinary things about Wisconsin politics is how anti-Trump Republicans have, by and large, gotten in line,” he said.
Walker, a Trump ally who lost his bid for a third term for governor in 2018, said in an interview with The Washington Post that any unease about Trump among reliable Republican voters has dissipated.
“I, for one, didn’t know if he’d be a conservative,” Walker said of his early apprehension about Trump as a presidential candidate. “He had never held office. This is a totally different context. Conservatives see the largest tax cut, the regulatory reforms, arguably the most pro-life administration ever, excellent picks for the judiciary. Those are the things that matter to us.”
“They want to hear him make clear what happened to George Floyd was wrong, which he did, and they want to see him support what Senator Tim Scott is working on,” Walker continued, referencing the opportunity zones championed by the Senate’s lone Black Republican, who represents South Carolina and was a featured speaker at the GOP convention.
Interviews with suburbanites here suggested a less-nuanced set of criteria on the minds of voters.
Yvonne Dufresne, 59, sat outside a Waukesha bar Wednesday morning with a raspberry White Claw in hand and described the Democratic voting tendencies of her youth as a long-forgotten mistake. “If you were never a Democrat, you have no heart,” she said. “If you were never a Republican, you have no brain.”
She said she consumed much of her news from Fox News Channel, but even Fox wasn’t cutting it anymore. She recently discovered the X22 Report, a YouTube channel that traffics in far-right conspiracy theories and hawks vintage silver coins. “I follow a lot of YouTubers,” Dufresne said. “Some would call it conspiracy theories. I would not.”
Dufresne, a recently retired industrial engineer who spends half the year in the Dominican Republic and half the year in Waukesha, said the unrest in Kenosha only deepened her commitment to Trump, whom she voted for in 2016. Like several others interviewed for this story, she brought up, unprompted, some of the baseless conspiracy theories that have spread online, such as the notion that liberal billionaire philanthropist George Soros is bankrolling the protests.
“Does the name George Soros ring a bell? Kenosha’s a small ‘burg, and these people were brought in,” Dufresne said, pointing to a statistic released by the Kenosha police indicating that the majority of those arrested in Kenosha last week were from other cities. “They were heavily funded, heavily paid, and many of them don’t know what they’re doing. It’s all meant to create divisiveness and blame it on Trump.
“The Democrats were hoping that this pandemic would last through November 3 and it didn’t happen, so they went to the riots and the looting. It’s just very predictable for me.”