In sparsely populated central Wisconsin’s Adams County, divisions about the scale of the pandemic appear even in the most benign social settings.
Gregory Kobs, 69, said members of his local wine club were split over how seriously to take the virus.
“I show up in a mask and they look at me and go, ‘What’s wrong with you?’” Kobs said. “One of the men who I respect dearly said, ‘I think these cases are fake; they’re a hoax.’”
Kobs, of Dellwood, is the chair of the Adams County Democrats and a retired heavy equipment operator. Pete Church, his Republican counterpart at the Adams County GOP, characterized the local Dems’ position as “keep everything closed.”
It’s one of many issues on which local Dems and Republicans clash. But despite the disconnect, Church, 42, a third-generation farmer who lives in Lincoln, said there’s no ill will between the two groups — even as the calendar ticks down to November.
In Adams County, a historic Democratic stronghold with a 15 percent poverty rate (against the state’s overall 10 percent poverty rate), backed President Trump by a margin of 21 percent. Out of the county’s 10,130 votes in 2016, 5,966 went to Trump and only 3,745 went to Hillary Clinton. Until then, Democrats have carried the county with wide margins in every presidential election from 1984 on — coming after Adams had backed Ronald Reagan twice in a row.
Even so, Church described the battle for Adams County this fall as a “war of ideas.”
“Right now, I don’t think it pays for us to go out and get in people’s faces about politics,” Church said.
Many residents of Adams County, which has leaned blue since 1960, have made their living working in the many paper mills located in central Wisconsin, or at the Oscar Mayer plant in the Madison area. The latter closed at the end of 2017, while area paper plants have undergone a series of closures and buyouts.
Carole, the owner of Carole’s Fashion Delights in downtown Adams who asked that her last name not be used, said it was hard to keep track of the flux in the paper industry. The corrugated paper factory is still operational, but the paper plant in Wisconsin Rapids has shut down. She’s lived in Adams since 1960, when she moved from Oak Park, Ill. to Adams for her husband, a doctor, to take a job at the Roche Creek Clinic.
“I thought Oak Park was a small town until I moved here,” she said. “The roads weren’t all paved. There wasn’t [a] sidewalk everywhere.”
As her children began to grow up, Carole got involved in the push to bring new schools to the county. When she ran for school board in the early 1980s, Carole said the area’s student population was going up. That began to change around 2000, she said, when the lack of jobs led to people leaving the county.
Those who stayed, she said, are more settled. They understand that the local population is decreasing (between 2010 and 2019, it shrank by 3 percent) and have come to terms with that and its economic implications.
“We see that things aren’t growing and getting bigger, and we kind of accept it,” she said.
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Moving on from 2016
Asked why Republicans have garnered more support in the county recently, Church’s first answer was agriculture. According to him, years of frustration with trade policy pushed farmers to support Trump and his protectionist message.
He claims Democrats oversaw the sellout of farms, so farmers who had traditionally voted blue were willing to try something new in 2016 because of Trump’s message of caring about rural America.
“In many ways [Democrats] caused the trade problems,” Church said. “Donald Trump’s only been president for three years. A lot of these folks have been in government for 20, 30 years. They oversaw the farmers being sold out.”
Leading into the election, Church said the Democrats’ opposition to the USMCA isn’t going to do them any favors as they try to take back the county.
“Our farmers know that tariffs have hurt, but when the Democrats turn around and make those fixes take longer, people notice,” Church said. “I think a lot of us said, ‘Okay, we’re willing to take a little financial hurt, because we’re going to come out of this stronger.’”
As far as Kobs is concerned, though, the loss in Adams County and similar areas was more a failure by Democrats to acknowledge the weak points in their “blue wall.”
“[The Clinton campaign] just ignored Wisconsin,” Kobs said. “They thought they were going to get it, and they just ignored it.”
Kobs illustrated this with a story from 2016, when the Clinton campaign asked local Democrats to organize about 500 people for a Wednesday event with Chelsea Clinton, but split the group into one room of 200 and one room of 300. Clinton spoke only to the first room. Hillary Clinton did not visit the state as a presidential candidate in 2020.
“(Chelsea) was supposed to go to the other room to at least wave or say something… and they just flew out and that was it,” Kobs said. “And so there’s 300 people that didn’t even see her.”
In 2020, though, Kobs thinks it’ll be a different story.
“In the three years that I’ve been a chair, I’ve never seen this many signs this early,” he said. “Seems like there’s a lot of people calling my house and asking for signs.”
He thinks concern about COVID-19 is fueling the early burst of energy around the election on the Democratic side.
“People are kind of worried about this Trump virus,” he said.
Cathy McCarron, 58, is having a harder time feeling that energy. McCarron and her daughter have been selling handmade masks at the Adams Flea Market, citing an increased need for them as school starts up again.
McCarron, an Adams resident, supported Hillary Clinton in 2016 and didn’t realize how strong the support was for Trump in her county. The pandemic has only made her more certain of her dislike for the president.
“He has no political background except for running a business. Running the United States is not a business,” McCarron said.
She has just recently bought Biden flags and yard signs for her mother and stepfather, both staunch Democrats. She’s unhappy that the county Dems have taken most of the summer to open an office.
“I don’t know why they’re taking so long to get [an office],” McCarron said. “The Republicans have been out there forever.”
Although McCarron sees a lot more Biden signs than Trump signs in the senior complex where she lives,“Trump’s got flags and hats and you just don’t see Biden stuff like that,” she lamented.
Laura Ferrante, 52, and the owner of Ferrante Auto Detail, said she would like to see socialized health care like in the Canadian model, paid for with higher taxes.
“Here’s another way you could pay for it; how about 5 cents on every can of beer?,” she said. “This country could have health insurance. 5 cents on every can of beer.”
However, she doesn’t think anybody on either side of the aisle who would implement meaningful health care reform.
Ferrante expressed frustration with the ways the two parties broke on certain issues. She supports student loan forgiveness and stronger gun regulation, but feels there needs to be stricter immigration control and more respect for law enforcement. She told WisPolitics.com that she was undecided about who to support in November, but was leaning toward Trump.
Ferrante may be one of the undecided voters that Church and his volunteers will be targeting in the coming months.
“I don’t think the push has been to very aggressively try to change their opinion,” Church said of the Adams County Republicans’ focus so far. “The push has been to identify people on the fence from people who are strongly in the campaign’s camp.”
Kobs has a similar strategy — voters who haven’t made up their minds yet appear to be a rarity in the area. Whether Trump will take Adams County a second time or whether the county will revert to its usual support of Democratic presidential candidates will depend on turnout.
“Just about everyone I’ve talked to has already decided one way or the other,” Kobs said. “The big push for Adams County is going to be getting everybody that’s a Democrat to vote.”
Largest City: Friendship
Total population: 20,220
White population: 90.3%
Hispanic or Latino: 4.2%
Black/African American: 2.9%
Mixed race: 1.4%
Indigenous population: 1.2%
Median Household Income: $43,280
Trade, transportation and utilities; public administration; business and professional services
Economic impact: $79 million
Top products: vegetables, grain and cattle
By Caroline Kubzansky for WisPolitics.com.