By Caroline Kubzansky for WisPolitics.com 

In 2008 and 2012, the Fox Valley’s Winnebago County voted for Barack Obama. In 2016, the area known for the EAA, water sports, manufacturing and dairy farms was one of a handful of swing counties that delivered Wisconsin and the presidency to Donald Trump. 

Trump won Winnebago County with about 43,000 votes to Clinton’s 37,000. It was one of 23 Wisconsin counties that flipped red after two elections in President Obama’s column. 

It’s one of the reasons Trump visited Oshkosh on Aug. 17, the first day of the largely virtual Democratic National Convention based in Milwaukee. 

In places like Winnebago County, Trump is basing his pitch on fear of the “radical left” and concerns that socialism will come to America under Joe Biden, whom he describes as a “puppet” of more left-wing politicians like Sen. Bernie Sanders.

“We’re going to fight for the survival of our nation and the survival of civilization itself,” he told the crowd in Oshkosh. “Do you want to be ruled by the radical left or you wanna stand tall as the free men and women of the greatest country on earth?

Activating Fox Valley conservatives 

Ed Hudak, chair of the Oshkosh-based Winnebago County GOP, is working hard to keep the county red, while his Democratic counterpart Marcia Steele is steering an energetic virtual operation to put the county in Joe Biden’s column come November 3rd. 

Many residents have already made their choice.

Hudak, who lives in Kimberly, believes that voters in this historic capital of paper production will support the president in the face of the twin issues of unrest around racial justice and COVID-19 related economic upset. Steele, however, is unfazed by the “law and order” talking point and thinks the Winnebago Dems’ involvement and investment in local life will push the county back to blue.

Hudak was as surprised as the rest of the nation when Trump took Wisconsin’s 10 electoral votes out from Hillary Clinton in 2016. But four years later, he has a theory as to how now-President Trump could have pulled off such an upset. 

“I believed the polls,” Hudak said. “But I never respond to a poll. My phone rings and I see it’s a poll, I hang up. Trumpies do the same thing. They hang up.”

“Trumpies” is what Hudak, 74, calls people who don’t ordinarily get involved in Republican Party politics, but who turned out to vote for Trump in 2016. As chairman of the Winnebago County Republicans, Hudak’s top-shelf concern this fall is engaging these voters to vote again for Trump, not to mention the other Republican candidates down the ticket. 

Hudak, a former school psychologist, was a Democrat until 2012. He is effusive, friendly, and given to talking with his hands. He professes a mistrust of journalists — the media beyond Fox News, he believes, has lost its mandate and sunk into advocacy journalism. But he was happy to spend an hour video-chatting with WisPolitics.com from his wood-paneled kitchen. 

And he had plenty to talk about. Hudak is honing the Winnebago GOP’s voter turnout and engagement efforts as the calendar ticks down to November. He sees making “Trumpies” feel welcome as the path to delivering Winnebago County again to the president. 

The energy to keep Winnebago red is there, Hudak says. He feels it in the waves of people inundating the county party’s Oshkosh office in search of signs and other merchandise. 

In the Winnebago GOP headquarters, nobody is masked, although Gov. Tony Evers issued a statewide mask mandate July 30 for all enclosed public spaces to prevent the spread of COVID-19. 

He said he thinks the “riots and demonstrations” of the early summer in the wake of George Floyd’s death at the hands of Minneapolis police officers is just pushing those voters more firmly into Trump’s embrace. 

“They’re flummoxed,” Hudak said. “They’re shocked over what’s happening on the streets.”

Watching cities burn and law enforcement under fire, he said, was of course not a good thing.  But the unrest was pushing people who perhaps wouldn’t be given to supporting the president on the basis of rhetoric or character into Trump’s “law and order” column.

For Bradley Seifeldt, 43, Trump is a bulwark against the “violent, intolerant, unacceptable behavior of the radical left.”

Seifeldt, an Oshkosh metal fabrication worker, supported Trump in 2016 and plans to do so again in November. He thinks more people will support Trump this election than four years ago out of sympathy for him, given his treatment by the press and the U.S. House of Representatives, where Democrats currently have a majority.

Winnebago GOP volunteer Mary Lynn Rasmussen, 82, characterized herself as a single-issue voter opposing abortion, She’s gotten active with the county party in the last six years or so. 

“It was the recall [of former Gov. Scott Walker in June 2012]; it was the arguments that finally woke me up,” she said. “I had to have an opinion.”

Rasmussen, an Oshkosh resident, said her anti-abortion opinion helps her sidestep people looking to pick a fight around politics.

“When people argue with me… I say to them as calmly as I can, ‘I’m sorry, but I’m a one-issue voter, and I think it’s something that can’t be argued,’” Rasmussen said.

Rasmussen couldn’t name what issues specifically brought people into the Winnebago GOP headquarters for Trump merchandise. 

“When voters come in and voice their opinion, we usually just confirm what they say because we believe it, we agree, and that’s why they’re here — to talk with people of a like mind.” Rasmussen said. “[Voter concerns] never register.”

Hudak said getting voters was a matter of identifying their priorities.

 “I don’t screw around with Trump’s shiny objects,” he said. “You gotta do policy. We’ve got people who are Republicans, good Republicans, who are never-Trumpers. And so we have to make the argument strategically. What do you like? What do you want to see happen?” 

There are issues beyond law enforcement and abortion to appeal to such voters, particularly Supreme Court nominations. And despite the media circus Hudak sees surrounding the president, the White House has acted on those priorities since 2016.  

“But if you look at what he’s doing, those things are all being done,” he said.

Winnebago Dems try to keep momentum

Policy is also top of mind for licensed practical nurse and Winnebago Dem Chair Marcia Steele, 69, as she tries to put together a winning strategy for the Democrats this November. 

“My thing is, should people lose their home and declare bankruptcy because they don’t have (health) insurance?” she said. “We need more funding for schools. Our roads are terrible. Who decides who gets to build an airport over there as opposed to over there?”

Steele, who lives in Oshkosh, said the Winnebago Democrats have considerable momentum going into the general election. She said the party volunteers and operatives have “stepped up their game” in engaging residents in and out of election season. In Winnebago, Steele said that means being more of an active force in the community year-round with a permanent office and regular events with candidates. 

“I think it gives people a feeling that the Democrats are not just there when we need them to vote; they are there to make the community a better, stronger place,” Steele said.

This approach has translated into some recent success: Steele cited the election of Jill Karofsky to the state Supreme court despite a COVID- challenged April election as a sign that the party’s community engagement was producing results under difficult circumstances. They’re hoping to build on that momentum to deliver Winnebago to Joe Biden through absentee balloting and safe polling practices no matter what the state of the pandemic is then. 

She notes membership has increased every year since she became chair in 2014.

Travis LeWallen, 34, is one of those recent additions to the organization. Though LeWallen is a resident of Waushara County’s Wild Rose, he primarily organizes with the Winnebago Dems through the Fox Valley Young Democrats. He found himself more motivated to be politically engaged in response to the tone of conversations he was hearing in the wake of the 2016 election. 

For LeWallen, a supervisor for patient access at Datacare Hospital, it seems that “the whole idea of decency between human beings has been thrown out the window.”

Though LeWallen voted for George W. Bush in 2004, he reached the end of his rope with the GOP under the leadership of President Trump.

“We used to be the country that everyone looked up to, and now we’re the country that everyone laughs at,” he said. 

Prior to the onset of COVID-19, LeWallen had been leading educational events dedicated to certain issues, the first of which focused on health care.

“I wanted to teach everyone, what does it mean when we say a single-payer system?” LeWallen said. “What does it mean when we say Medicare for all and what is the difference between private insurance and public? What is the difference between your copays and your coinsurance as your deductibles?” 

LeWallen said the events had generated good momentum before the pandemic put things on hold. 

“We were getting 30 to 40 people, which is a lot; it’s a brand new group. And so it was really growing and moving in a good direction,” he said.

He’s still attending three or four virtual meetings each month, and trying to connect with his family members over issues of importance to them, chiefly health care and environmental concerns.

Out knocking doors before the pandemic, LeWallen said health care was top of mind to plenty of Winnebago County voters. But Medicare For All, he said, was somewhat controversial.

“They really were scared about losing that choice of the health care that they wanted and being forced into a government program that may not serve them as well as the current system,” LeWallen said.

Taxes were also a major concern, “the biggest thing” voters told LeWallen they were worried about. He characterized their fear as “the Democrats are going to raise our taxes, and we’re going to have to pay more money.”

In an effort to make these conversations about potential policy implications more organic, the Oshkosh-headquartered Winnebago Dems are organizing neighborhood teams in hopes that people will connect with their neighbors about the issues that mattered to them. 

Steele said she finds it difficult to understand how the small farmers her party is struggling to connect with can throw their support behind the president after feeling the bite of his trade skirmishes with China. While driving with her husband, Steele said she recently saw a sign saying “support local farmers, and then right next to it was a Trump sign. How do those two thought processes work?”

Steele said she’s puzzled how somebody could still be making their choice for November, given the options. 

“I haven’t run into anyone still undecided — are there really any undecideds left? I mean, what are you undecided about?,” she said.

Richard Schallert, 87 and a former law professor at UW-Oshkosh who lives in Winneconne, said the 2018 tax cut went a long way in shoring up enthusiasm for Trump — “although nobody can tell me how much money they’ve saved,” he said.

Schallert, who was running the Winnebago Dems’ tent at the Oshkosh Farmers Market, also thought his neighbors who support the president liked him because they identified with his message of American isolationism. Although Schallert disagreed with this outlook, he understood his neighbors’ reluctance to “deal with the rest of the world.”

He thought that another element to local support for the president, especially among people he knows at his church, is the decision to move the U.S. embassy in Israel out of Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

One challenge for the party is the way its potential voters are scattered, particularly those in the agriculture industry, making it difficult to connect with them — much less win them over to Biden’s column. 

“One of the hardest issues is that we’re kind of rural. It’s hard for us to find farmers and make them believe in what we want for everybody,” Steele said. “We just don’t see a lot of that demographic coming into the office.”  

Protests and absentee ballots: The road to November

The Winnebago Dems are doing quite a bit of phone calling to identified voters these days. They’re also conducting their monthly meetings online to adhere to social distancing guidelines as the COVID-19 pandemic continues.

Looking ahead to November, “our big push is absentee balloting — we don’t want another fiasco like we had in April,” Steele said. 

Hudak said Republicans may be able to take advantage of the anger he sees generated through the virus-related stay-at-home directives and resulting economic slowdown.

“The shopkeepers, the businesspeople, the amount of pain in those people and how angry they were [about the stay-at-home orders] was unbelievable,” Hudak said. “Now we’re trying to use that, getting these people to support our guy.” 

Hudak also said he was suspicious of the messaging around the virus because so much of it was coming from the mainstream media, which he considers an arm of the Democratic Party along with Black Lives Matter. At one point, he likened participants in protests following the death of George Floyd to German Brown Shirts in the 1930s.

“Black Lives Matter is an arm of the Democratic Party,” Hudak said. “That’s what it is, I mean, face it! It’s Brown shirts for the Democrats — you know, the guys over in Germany. Go back and read some of that stuff. That’s what’s happening. That’s what we’re seeing on TV.” 

Hudak’s comparisons did not faze Steele, who deemed them “words to keep the GOP base thinking we’re a horrible group of people.”

Come November, she said, “we will have no problem matching what they say. It’s just words. There’s no real policy behind it.”

COUNTY SNAPSHOT 

Demographic data

Population: 167,000
Top Industries: Manufacturing, Health Care and Social Assistance, Retail
Largest City: Oshkosh
White Population: 88 %
Hispanic/Latino Population: 4.4.%
Asian Population: 3.1%
Black/African American Population: 2.5%
Median household income: $57,124

Top employment sectors 

Trade, transportation and utilities; Public administration; Professional and business services

Agricultural information

Economic impact: $378.7 million
Top products: Milk, grain, and cattle

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