By Caroline Kubzansky for

Crawford County in Wisconsin’s Driftless Area has typically been a blue stalwart of southwestern Wisconsin. According to Olson Feed Service proprietor Tammy Olson, of Seneca, even conservative-leaning local candidates have run as Democrats because there was no hope of the area electing a Republican.

“I remember my first year voting — everybody voted Democrat,” Olson, 54, said. “It was what you did. We had no Republicans on the ballot. They’d run on the Democratic ticket because they want to be elected in our county. If anybody runs on the Republican ticket, they may as well just not even bother.”

But as farm crises and big agriculture have made themselves felt in the area, that trend has begun to shift. Crawford County supported Donald Trump by just 417 votes in 2016 (of 7,728 votes, Trump won 3,836 to Hillary Clinton’s 3,419). And the winding highways around the predominantly rural county are checkered with signs supporting the president as well as down-ballot candidates like Republican state Senate candidate Dan Kapanke. Prior to 2016, the county last backed a Republican presidential candidate during Ronald Reagan’s 1984 reelection bid as Reagan went on to win Wisconsin.

Olson couldn’t identify a specific moment when she noticed the heavy support for Dems ebbing in Crawford County, though she noted that Barack Obama was not as popular in the area as previous Democratic presidents. Part of it, she thinks, is the lack of agricultural expertise in Washington that’s led to policies that have hurt farmers, bringing prices down from $7 for a bushel of corn in 2012 to $3 this summer.

“There just has not been a strong presence in Washington fighting for agriculture for a very long time,” Olson lamented. Though she herself doesn’t understand the enthusiasm for the president among her neighbors, she noted that the most recent set of troubles for farmers began under the Obama administration, likely dampening Dem prospects even before Trump entered the picture.

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Virus, youth vote pose challenges ahead of Election Day

In Prairie du Chien, Crawford County Democratic Party Chair Dale Klemme, 74, and his Republican counterpart and friend David Wesener, 64, both plan to rely on voter turnout and base mobilization to deliver the county to their parties this November. In such a rural area, the COVID-19 pandemic has interfered less with their campaign plans compared to elsewhere in the state.

“If we have high turnout, I think we’ll win; I don’t think the virus will necessarily hinder voting,” Klemme said. Like Dems throughout Wisconsin, Klemme, the executive director at nonprofit Community Development Alternatives, has taken a more cautious line on the pandemic, pulling back on the majority of in-person meetings and holding physical events outdoors.

Those events have been geared mostly toward introducing new candidates to the communities, such as meet-the-candidates forums at local parks.

“COVID makes it hard for non-incumbents to get their names publicized,” Klemme noted. He added that once the party has opened its office in Prairie du Chien, getting the word out will be easier. As of publication, the party was waiting to open the space until Biden yard signs had arrived.

Wesener acknowledged the seriousness of the public health threat the virus poses but was skeptical of the measures taken to contain it.

“If there wasn’t an election year, there wouldn’t have been a lockdown,” he said.

In an effort to keep building momentum despite what Wesener, a former law enforcement officer, called the “China flu,” the Crawford GOP has been going door to door with candidate literature and campaign materials. The party office has also been open for some time in an effort to get the area mobilized in support of Republicans.

If voter turnout is the name of the game, the people Wesener most hopes to see in the office are independents and otherwise non-aligned voters from the Gays Mills and Soldiers’ Grove areas.

“Our party has been weak (in) identifying people that would label themselves as independents for whom it would be in their interest to vote Republican,” he said.

As far as Klemme is concerned, youth voters and non-voters from previous elections are the people to target. He worries that millennials and other young voters won’t register to vote or exercise their votes out of the feeling that their votes don’t matter.

“There is this feeling that their vote doesn’t count, one party is no different or better than the other, and what difference does it make?,” Klemme said. “Part of that might be due to the fact that they have voted in the past, Democrat or Republican, and their life hasn’t changed.”

One young person who is definitely invested in electoral politics as an engine of change is Josefine Jaynes, 18. She spoke to on the heels of winning her primary to represent the 96th Assembly District. This November, she’ll face incumbent Rep. Loren Oldenburg, R-Viroqua, having deferred her enrollment at UW-Madison for a year to focus on the campaign.

Jaynes, who lives in Prairie du Chien, has staked much of her candidacy on the next generation of the 96th AD, which is anchored in Crawford County. She’s stressed her intention to help create an economy and internet infrastructure that attracts younger folks to the area and keeps them there. But her first priority, she said, was avoiding partisan politics in an area where many pride themselves on not voting straight ticket.

She’s heard a lot of support for President Trump, she said. But for local offices, she added, party affiliation is often less important than who a candidate is. Just because the area might be broadly supportive of the president doesn’t mean that certain voters couldn’t be persuaded to back her this November on the strength of her character and local focus, she said.

“Especially in local level races, it’s a lot more of who the person is,” Jaynes said. “They view the people on how they are in our communities. You come here and you see my yard signs are next to Ron Kind and they’re also next to Derrick Van Orden.” Republican Van Orden, is challenging Kind, the Dem incumbent, for the 3rd CD.

Jaynes said she’s hoping to unseat Oldenburg with a more interpersonal approach that she summarized as “Come with me to Madison.”

Dairy farmers consider their options for November

Gays Mills farmer Chad Sime is the kind of voter candidates like Jaynes will need to focus on to deliver the county to Democrats this fall. Sime, 38, supported Trump in 2016 but was surprised at the outcome of the election on the national level.

He said that especially at the lower levels of government, he prioritizes the candidates’ personal integrity. When it comes to the White House, he agrees with Trump on many policy points, but takes issue with the president’s conduct. He said he swings more conservative because of his job, but added that Dems do a better job with certain issues he cares about like school funding.

“I wasn’t opposed to renegotiating the stuff with China or NAFTA, stuff like that, but I kind of question the approach,” Sime said.

A few miles up Highway 27, Eastman dairy farmer Matt Achenbach, 36, has had his mind made up for some time. He’ll be supporting the president’s reelection, a stance consistent with his history as a Republican voter — except for his vote for U.S. Rep. Ron Kind, D-La Crosse.

For Achenbach and his father Steve, 64, how they vote largely comes down to taxes and regulations.

“The government’s the most inefficient way to do anything,” Matt Achenbach said.

This being said, the Achenbachs support some policies that are typically considered left-leaning — notably expanding health care coverage for those who don’t have it and certain environmental preservation policies.

“We follow all the programs that they put out there; we try to make the world better because there’s concerns about water runoff,” Matt Achenbach said. “We sign up for all the programs that the (Natural Resources Conservation Service) is handing out to control erosion.”

Steve even said he’d support Medicare for All “as long as I can get my hip put in when I want to.” He had a hip replacement last year and said his main concern about expanding public healthcare to resemble European and Canadian models was whether people would be able to have their procedures done in a timely manner.

However, both Achenbachs were critical of the way the government has handled the pandemic. At the state level, they resent Gov. Tony Evers’ recent statewide mask mandate. And on a national scale, they disagreed with the way economic relief played out.

“Why should someone get relief when they don’t work?” Matt asked. “I think it should be taken off your taxes. That says you’re still working. I just think it’s stupid that you’re handing the money out for everyone.”

While the pandemic didn’t force Sime to dump milk, and dairy prices have improved somewhat, he hasn’t been impressed with the approach to the pandemic either. In fact, he hasn’t been impressed with many parts of the last four years despite his agreement with the Trump administration on some policies.

He is undecided about whether to support the president again this November.

“I do plan on voting,” Sime said. “And at this point I honestly… I’m going to be doing a lot more research than I normally do.”

County snapshot

Demographic information:

Population: 16,131
Median age: 46 
Median income: $48,853
White population: 94%
Black/African American: 2.2%
Mixed race: 1.2%
Hispanic or Latino population: 1.8%
Other: 1%

Top Employment Sectors

Trade, transportation, and utilities; public administration; business and professional services

Agricultural Information:

Economic impact: $127 million
Top products: Milk, grain, and cattle

See more county profiles here.

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