If history serves as a guide, the candidate who wins Sawyer County in November is likely to win the presidency.
The county has voted for every winning presidential candidate as far back as 1964. Even if a candidate didn’t win Wisconsin as a whole, each one who carried Sawyer won the White House. The only other Wisconsin county to share this distinction is Juneau, which also has a perfect record of picking winners since 1964.
The largely rural county, a top Northwoods vacation destination in the sprawling 7th Congressional District, went for Donald Trump in 2016, despite having voted twice for Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012. Prior to that, Sawyer County residents put their support behind the election and reelections of George W. Bush and Bill Clinton, and the election of George H.W. Bush.
The county backed Donald Trump with 56.7 percent of the vote. Hillary Clinton, on the other hand, only took 38.3 percent.
The battle for Sawyer County has challenges for both sides heading into November. Republican County Chair Jim Miller is concerned the economic situation will dampen President Trump’s standing among Sawyer County’s roughly 13,000 voting-age residents. And Democratic County Chair Gayle Johnson has watched her organizing operation stagger in the face of COVID-19.
Nevertheless, both parties are getting fired up to turn out new voters and get as many people registered as they can to swing Sawyer to their side in the presidential election.
For Johnson, 76, Sawyer County is “basically a red county.” Given this perception, Johnson, a former correctional officer who lives in Ojibwa, was surprised WisPolitics.com wanted to speak with her.
Native Americans important driver in Sawyer County elections
A video editor for Indian Country TV.com Paul DeMain, 64, disagreed with this summary of Sawyer’s political profile. Native Americans’ involvement, centered in the Lac Courte Oreilles Band of Lake Superior Chippewa Indians’ reservation, can mean the difference between a purple and a red year for Sawyer as a whole.
“Sawyer County was historically a Republican-controlled county,” DeMain said. “In 1978, there was a major tribal government effort to register voters in Sawyer County, because it was very clear that there was an absence of impact of tribal members on the electoral process.”
In the 1980s, about 400 Native Americans signed up for the local Democratic Party and began participating more seriously in elections, turning some districts within the county blue.
“There was a certain purple essence,” DeMain said, “And really, the people who were moving that were the independents, including the indigenous independents who were saying, “We’re not so tied to the Democratic Party as we are to gain[ing] political influence.”
“We’ve simply tried to build on that effort of awareness of political influences,” DeMain said. “The goal from my point of view has always been to try to neutralize Sawyer County. Since gerrymandering, that process has been made difficult because we’ve been disjoined from the interests of other tribes.”
Now, the Sawyer Democrats run a joint party with LCO, and one of the big organizing pushes this fall will be getting as many of LCO’s 7,275 residents registered to vote as possible. Johnson serves as co-chair alongside LCO’s Rusty Barber. Barber did not respond to multiple requests for interviews with WisPolitics.com.
DeMain said he was seeing ebbing support for President Trump in the county, and chalked up 2016 as a loss by Hillary Clinton rather than a win for Trump.
“I see a lot of people who didn’t vote, independents and Democrats, for Hillary Clinton who are going to vote this time,” he said.
Environmental issues likely to be at the top of mind for LCO voters are pipelines, mining, and drilling in the area. Sawyer County has witnessed a number of mining projects over the years; critics say mining has often threatened the area’s water supply. To the north, copper and zinc mining in the Penokee mountains are raising concerns about polluting Lake Superior.
“It’s always been a huge battle against pipelines, mines, industrialization,” DeMain said. “I don’t think anybody in northern Wisconsin sees the green energy policy that AOC has, necessarily, or Bernie Sanders, or healthcare at that level. But people are looking at their health needs and saying, ‘We need to change something.’”
DeMain also said he thought the COVID-19 pandemic would influence the outcome in November.
“I think people are going to judge this on the handling of this pandemic,” he said. “This is coming home; it’s not escaping anyone. We’re first place in cases and deaths and almost everything else. This is impacting people personally, and we hold [Trump responsible].”
Dems seek youth involvement
Health insurance, especially under the current circumstances, is another top-line issue for the Sawyer Dems. Though Johnson has Medicare, she worries about younger people whose jobs may not provide health insurance. She’d also like to get more of them involved with the Sawyer Dems, but said they’re in somewhat short supply in Sawyer County. The county’s median age is about 50, 12 years over the national median.
“I wish we could get younger people interested. Most of the people seem to be retirement age that are joining. I wish we could get [young people] to commit, but it’s pretty hard to do. There are of course some, but there’s not a lot of work around here,” she said. Sawyer County’s unemployment rate was 8.6 percent as of June 2020, which matches the state’s unemployment rate as a whole.
But some of the young people who do live in Sawyer County are getting more politically active in the wake of George Floyd’s murder in Minneapolis. Jeremy Stewart and his cousin Julian Rogstad, both 21, are among them.
“I read the article about George Floyd and was just like, ‘How? Why?’ I felt like I had to be out there — and so we pack up and go,” Stewart said.
Since June, they’ve gotten involved with protests out of state and more locally, often through a liberal civic engagement group, UpNorthEngage.
Stewart and Rogstad, both from Hayward, joined protests in Minneapolis because, in Rogstad’s words, “The Minneapolis police are tyrants.”
Stewart, who recently quit his job at a deli in Hayward over a disagreement about mask-wearing, described himself as an independent. He’s a staunch supporter of Second Amendment rights, but is concerned over the racial divisions and inequities he says he’s observed in his own city as well as across the country. Had he been of age in 2016, he would have voted for Trump.
“He was good at speaking to the people,” Stewart said. “He gave us this demeanor of ‘I will get things done for the people.’”
Four years later, Stewart doesn’t think he’d make the same choice.
“I can be convinced to believe in someone, but I can’t be convinced to follow them blindly,” Stewart said.
In polarized climate, politics an unpopular topic between friends
Roy Brohaugh of Round Lake will be voting for the president a second time — but he’ll be doing so with his eyes open.
“I recognize our current president isn’t the best we’ve ever had,” Brohaugh, 73, said. “I have considered not voting.”
Brohaugh, who takes most of his values from Wesleyan Protestantism, readily identified himself as a single-issue voter around abortion and other issues of religious freedom. As long as Democrats back policies like granting LGBTQ people marriage licenses and other policies that he sees as threats to the freedom of worship, he’ll be voting Republican.
Brohaugh said that if he weren’t so motivated to vote based on abortion policy, he’d be willing to hear the Dems out on some issues, specifically climate change and environmental preservation.
“I’d probably be more inclined to agree with [Joe Biden] environmentally than I would be with Trump,” Brohaugh said. “I’m all for preserving wild areas, and I’m pretty convinced that would be more of a Democratic-leaning issue.”
He also expressed concerns about health care for people younger than himself. Though he was skeptical of Obamacare as a solution, he said, “I don’t know if I’ve got a better answer. I recognize it’s a very tough situation.”
However, Brohaugh largely keeps these thoughts to himself.
Scott Smith, 77, agreed with Brohaugh’s assessment of politics as an unpopular topic of conversation. The two men are friends, though politics doesn’t factor into their relationship. Smith jumped into his local political scene following the 2016 election, getting involved with both UpNorthEngage and Indivisible Wisconsin.
Smith described Sawyer County’s political climate as polarized, with most progressives having transplanted from Chicago, Minneapolis, or St. Paul. But they are heavily outnumbered by more conservative-leaning residents.
He said he’d been knocking doors before COVID-19 and participating in protests on “Democracy corner” with his wife, Paulette, and other members of UpNorthEngage well before the election began to approach in earnest.
“We’ve had pretty good turnouts for [protests],” he said. “And that kind of thing was not happening prior to 2016.”
Though Smith voted for Republican Barry Goldwater in 1964, he described himself as having moved left over time as the Republican Party, to his eyes, moved rightward. His main issues are immigration, Black Lives Matter, and homelessness — as well as climate change, which he is “convinced is human-created.”
Smith runs the newsletter for UpNorthEngage, of which he is a charter member. As the election approaches, he’s planning to continue editing the newsletter and donating to congressional candidate Tricia Zunker in hopes of moving the needle in his area.
COVID-19 impacts voter outreach
Johnson and the Sawyer Dems are also trying to get their message out by distributing yard signs, and they plan to write a few letters to the editors of community newspapers. Later in the summer, they plan to set up tables to speak with voters at local groceries and hold phone banks targeting prospective Democratic voters.
But “because of our limited social network around here, there isn’t a lot you can do,” she said.
COVID-19 has only made things more difficult. With several mainstays of the campaign trail like the county fair canceled, migrating events to the internet is the only option to engage with party members and do so safely.
Putting party activities online has slowed the flow of new faces to a trickle. Whereas at normal meetings, Johnson would be able to greet first-time attendees and get them signed up for the party, that’s hard to do in an online meeting.
“I’ve had one or two new people join the Zoom meetings but I don’t know if they’ve joined the party,” Johnson said.
COVID-19 has also thrown a wrench in Jim Miller’s messaging ahead of the November election. Miller, a 25-year veteran of the hospitality industry, considers the economy to be Trump’s strongest argument. Now, the economic slowdown that’s come with the COVID-19 pandemic is undercutting that talking point.
Sawyer County’s tourism and hospitality industry has taken a tough hit over the last five months.
Miller described the choice facing voters this fall as a question of who best fits an individual’s interests.
Despite the “hiccup” with the recession, he feels he could still make a case that Trump would be the best fit — especially if he can convince voters much of the slowdown is designed to hurt the president.
“A lot of conservatives believe there’s a lot of politics behind COVID and the shutdowns because the economy is President Trump’s strong point. All polls indicate he’s done a phenomenal job on the economy,” he said.
Voter engagement is a top priority for Miller and the Sawyer County GOP going into the fall. Though the party won’t have a physical office open until after Labor Day, Miller said that voter interaction has been “nonstop” through the summer.
He says he thinks this indicates high favorability for the president among Sawyer County voters. He also highlights a weak point in the Democrats’ message, which he sees as driven by Chicago, Milwaukee, and Madison.
“The rural Democrats try real hard to appeal to the base of the Dems, but they can’t help themselves; they are so tied to the messaging of urban, coastal, socialist Democrats that their talking points just don’t resonate,” he said.
He cited Second Amendment rights as an example of the disconnect he sees between the Democratic platform and voters in northern Wisconsin.
Lenroot resident Malu Dums, 40, characterizes her values as “liberal and Democratic.” She said that gun legislation and pro-life stances are major drivers for her friends who vote Republican. This didn’t prevent the county from going blue in 2008 and 2012, though.
Asked what changed for Trump in 2016, Dums answered, “the immigration issue was big around here.”
“We’re nowhere near the border, but people seemed really afraid that a whole bunch of immigrants were going to come and just destroy their way of rural, northwest Wisconsin life,” she said.
Miller, for his part, cited dwindling patience with the way he thinks Democrats’ messaging relies on accusing Republicans of racism. This has been a feature of so many elections, he said, that many conservatives have retreated entirely from local political discussions and don’t answer polls or surveys about their voting preferences.
“It’s part of their playbook every cycle, and I think Republicans resent it, are tired of it, are tired of talking about it publicly,” he said.
With this in mind, the Sawyer County Republicans plan to identify as many potential GOP voters as they can well ahead of the polls opening and “pester” them to vote absentee.
Until the polls open, though, it’s a matter of building membership and momentum.
“What we have is a few people who are very dedicated and very committed to getting more people engaged in the election,” Johnson said. “And we’re hoping that most of those people will be Democrats.”
County population: 16,558
Largest city: Hayward, population 2,380
White population: 78.2 %
American Indian and Alaska Native population: 17.7%
Hispanic or Latino population: 2.9%
Black/African American population: .7%
Median household income: $44,555
Top employment sectors
Trade, transportation and utilities; education and health; tourism and hospitality
Economic impact: $41 million
Top products: Milk, grain, and fruits, nuts and berries
–By Caroline Kubzansky for WisPolitics.com.