By Caroline Kubzansky for WisPolitics.com.
In 2016, Donald Trump defeated Hillary Clinton in Kenosha County by 238 votes. With the county again up for grabs this November, Democratic Chair Lori Hawkins and Republican Chair Erin Decker agree on one thing: there are undecided voters to convince.
Kenosha, a former auto manufacturing center bordering Lake Michigan and Illinois, has historically been a blue county. Kenosha last voted for a Republican presidential candidate in 1972, when it backed Richard Nixon. It’s backed Democrats for president in every election since then, until 2016.
Steve Lund, 69, recalled his surprise at Trump’s narrow victory four years ago. A recently retired columnist for the Kenosha News, he’s lived in the city of Kenosha since 1977.
When Lund first moved, Kenosha was “the kind of place where you did not want to be near the factories when the shifts changed,” he said, because the streets would get so crowded with workers leaving or arriving for shifts.
The Local 72 chapter of the United Auto Workers union was particularly politically active. He remembered the union used to run phone banks and voter turnout efforts before their membership began to dwindle in the late 1980s.
By 2016, the “blue wall” the unions once built had developed major cracks.
“There were whole families voting for Trump, and they had never voted Republican before,” Decker said. And people said, “we will never tell anyone that we’re voting for Trump, because they knew there would be retaliation.”
Decker, 42, is herself associated with the industry through the auto repair shop she owns, and serves as a Kenosha County Board supervisor as well as being the GOP county party chair. A resident of Silver Lake, she recalled that in 2016 many longtime union families defected from the Democratic side to support Trump. But they did so quietly, and with great reluctance.
Her hope for 2020 is that there will be less reluctance among them to support the president’s reelection bid.
“People know what they’re getting with Trump now,” she said.
She and her colleagues at the Kenosha County GOP have been working on voter registration since October, trying to grow the base in the county with a special eye toward longtime union Democrats who “want good-paying jobs in America.”
Writer and customer language analyst Kaylynn Schuetzner, 33, recently moved to Pleasant Prairie from Illinois. She said the recent Black Lives Matter protests have only strengthened GOP voters’ resolve to support President Trump. She was concerned by the property destruction she saw in cities like Portland and Milwaukee.
“A lot of the left seems to be condoning violence as an expression of emotion,” Schuetzner said. “A lot of business owners are scared for their storefronts or even for their homes — there was a gentleman in Milwaukee who was shot in front of his own business for holding a sign.”
Bernell ‘Ras’ Trammell was a vocal Trump supporter who was killed July 23 outside of his Milwaukee business that featured numerous signs backing Trump. Police have not arrested a suspect nor indicated a motive in the killing.
Decker also thinks there may be an opening for the Republican message in the wake of ongoing protests against police and the dismantling of statues around the country.
“I don’t think union Democrats are for spray painting things,” she said. The skepticism she perceives around recent protests forms part of a larger opportunity she sees with Democrats who may not be in step with the progressive, left wing of the party and could be open to the Republican message.
That message relies on the USMCA and unemployment numbers under Trump — at least before COVID-19 punched a hole in the economy.
Hawkins also highlighted a focus on good-paying jobs, noting Kenosha Democrats have spoken with voters concerned about being able to cover the costs of healthcare and rent on two full-time incomes.
Sitting in a rented house in Tennessee, where her daughter was competing in a softball tournament, Hawkins — a 52-year-old resident of Bristol who owns a yoga studio and staged an unsuccessful bid in 2018 for the 21st Senate District— said Kenosha Democrats are “doing a lot of listening right now.”
“We’re finding people saying each adult in a household is working full-time, and they’re still having trouble covering household and healthcare costs,” she said. “They’re worried about not being able to pay the rent and being able to pay doctor bills without going into bankruptcy.”
Contrary to what Decker said she’s been hearing from defecting union Democrats, Hawkins said Democrats have always prioritized working families.
“We don’t need to change our priorities,” she said. “We’re staying the course.”
What does need to change, though, is that undecided voters like those her phone bankers call need to feel as though they are being listened to.
“There are a lot of people who haven’t made up their mind yet. They want to talk to people; they don’t feel that anyone is listening to them,” Hawkins said.
Other undecideds have told the Kenosha Dems they’re still waiting to hear more from Joe Biden, who has run a low-profile campaign since the pandemic hit.
She said the presumptive nominee is someone who has “never forgotten his blue-collar roots,” but also “has made it his business to talk to voters and ask them questions.”
COVID-19 has created a whole new set of issues for voters to worry about, and a new set of challenges as the Kenosha parties try to make their arguments ahead of the election. Decker said although the virus has “hindered things a bit,” around jobs and the economy, she’s still pitching voters on the administration’s economic and trade policy accomplishments, plus the President’s focus on appointing justices to the Supreme Court.
“When I talk to people, I like to use Trump’s words: ‘Promises kept,’” she said.
Schuetzner also thought Trump’s Twitter conduct mattered less than “the actual impacts of the policies.”
“I don’t really care if you’re kind of a jerk on Twitter,” she said. “Looking at the actual impact of his policies, I think people would find they are more prosperous on the whole, more free on the whole.”
When it comes to campaigning, the Kenosha GOP has switched gears from a physical office to an operation based mostly on door-knocking. The Kenosha Trump Victory Center was supposed to open at the end of March, but the party didn’t even end up signing a lease agreement.
On the Democratic side, the first three months of 2020 had seen continual increases in membership and volunteer excitement. Hawkins said that when the pandemic became a reality, “we had to figure out how to keep that momentum going and letting people know we’re still including them.”
The office is still shut down, so Kenosha Dems have had far more phone contact with voters than they would have had by this point in an ordinary election year. An ongoing concern is getting candidates facetime with voters in a summer where every campaign opportunity has been canceled or moved online.
What’s constant for Hawkins and her Democratic colleagues is a commitment to connecting with voters on the issues closest to them, whether that means affordable healthcare, better funding for public schools, or their concerns over law enforcement and racial equity.
Although Decker described a rift at the local level among centrist and progressive Dems in Kenosha, Hawkins expressed confidence that the priorities of the Democratic Party at the national level are the same as those in the Kenosha area.
“That consistency you’re seeing from the national all the way down to the local in the Democratic Party, you’re not seeing in the Republican Party. There’s a lot of chaos,” she said.
Just under 100 days out from election day, both chairs said it was a wait-and-see situation.
“It is still pretty early in the game,” Hawkins said. “Those of us who make it our business to know what’s going on don’t feel it’s too early, but the people who are getting the kids out the door every morning, worried about paying their bills… summer is usually when people start thinking.”
County population: 167,886
Largest city: Kenosha, population 99,944
White population: 87.2 %
Black/African American population: 7.4%
Hispanic or Latino population: 13.5%
Median household income: $60,929
Top employment sectors
Trade, transportation and utilities; education and health; manufacturing
Economic impact: $352 million
Top products: Grain, milk, and nursery and greenhouse products