How Trump’s Presidency Looks from Rural Wisconsin
It’s Chippewa Valley Farm-City Day, and hundreds of schoolchildren are swarming the grounds of Denmark Dairy, which stretches for nearly a mile along County Road B in Dunn County, in western Wisconsin. They are laughing and chattering to one another and petting young calves. The dairy, one of the largest in the region, sustains a herd of twenty-four hundred cows on more than four thousand acres, each milked by machine three times a day. Some of that milk finds its way up the road to the Swiss Miss plant, in Menomonie, which makes more than fifty million boxes of hot-cocoa powder every year, among other sugary delights. Each kid receives a small container of Swiss Miss vanilla pudding while making the rounds.
Dennis Kragness, who is seventy, has been farming here since 1973, expanding in hard times that have bankrupted other families. In the past fifteen years, nearly half of the state’s dairy farms have shut their doors. Farm bankruptcies in Wisconsin last year were higher than in any other state, triggered by years of low commodity prices. As Karen Gefvert, the Wisconsin Farm Bureau’s government-relations director, put it, farmers “get up every morning and they lose money.” Adding to the stress, President Trump’s trade battles and the stalled replacement for NAFTA are limiting access to foreign markets while his demonization of undocumented immigrants stymies efforts to secure a badly needed labor force. At Denmark Dairy, which Kragness runs with his son, Karl, half of the forty-person staff arrived from Latin America, presenting papers that the farm keeps on file. Kragness wishes that he could recruit workers in their home countries and see them obtain documents allowing them to travel back and forth. “Let them cross the border legally. If they could set up a green-card system,” he told me. “We need these people. They’re good people. I don’t know how we would run the farm without them.”
Yet you won’t hear Kragness criticizing Trump. “I don’t have any issues with the President, with what he’s done or what he’s said. If others would work with him, he could solve it,” he said, seated at a folding table beneath a white party tent set up for Farm-City Day. He’s glad that Trump is challenging China on trade, which “had to be corrected.” He praises his attacks on the Federal Reserve chairman, Jerome Powell, which aim to drive interest rates lower and strengthen economic growth ahead of the 2020 election. Nor will you see him considering any of the Democratic Presidential candidates. “I’m not in favor of any kind of socialism,” he said. “We’re a capitalist farm.”
Kragness is just one voter. But, as Republicans and Democrats look for clues about the rural vote leading up to the election, his views reflect the loyalty of Trump’s staunchest supporters and reveal the challenge facing Democrats aiming to seize the narrative from a skilled political showman. In interviews this month with more than two dozen people in Dunn County and in neighboring towns, I found that both parties are gearing up earlier than ever, vowing to contest counties that voted for Barack Obama, in 2008 and 2012, before lurching to Trump, in 2016, helping him win the state by twenty-two thousand votes out of three million cast. “Is it backfiring?” Mark Hagedorn, a dairy expert at the University of Wisconsin-Extension, asked about farmers’ decision to back Trump. “I think we can argue that six ways to Sunday.”
Wisconsin has a history of close Presidential elections, with Obama’s thrashing of John McCain, in 2008, and Mitt Romney, in 2012, the exceptions. Al Gore won the state by a scant six thousand votes, in 2000, and John Kerry won by eleven thousand, four years later. Even Trump’s surprising victory offers warning signs for Republicans. He received fewer votes than Romney, but benefitted from a desultory Democratic campaign effort and voters’ antipathy toward Hillary Clinton. To overcome Democrats’ advantages in Milwaukee and Madison, and their strength in an increasing number of suburbs, Republicans need to run up the score in rural counties like Dunn. That’s what happened in 2016, when the state’s forty-six rural counties supported Trump over Clinton by nineteen points, according to a tabulation by Craig Gilbert, the Washington bureau chief of the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel. He found that more than five hundred localities, with a median population of less than eight hundred, chose Trump after voting for Obama four years earlier. Brian Reisinger, a Republican strategist, told me, “The past several elections show clear as a bell that there is no room for error.”
The late-summer landscape of Dunn County could not look more bountiful, with acres of tall corn and leafy soybean plants that stretch across rolling hills toward the horizon. The potato and kidney-bean harvest is well under way, soybeans are next, and farmers are already beginning to consider what next year’s market will bear. One morning, when the sunlight was golden and the day not yet hot, I drove along winding two-lane roads to see Jim Holte, who farms about four hundred and fifty acres near the town of Elk Mound. Holte started, in the mid-seventies, with dairy cows, then switched to a beef herd. This season, he planted two types of soybeans, for seed and for non-G.M.O. food, aiming to squeeze a price premium in a year made tough by trade uncertainty and the worst spring weather he had seen in forty years. Technology and experience are making farmers better than ever at growing things, he said, “But the margins are smaller. If I had to make a living on what I can grow on four hundred and fifty acres, it’s not possible.”
Holte draws a paycheck as the president of the Wisconsin Farm Bureau, a role he has had for nearly seven years. He has seen how American farmers keep producing more than the U.S. market will bear, forcing prices lower, a phenomenon that long predates Trump. That’s one reason that foreign markets are so important. “We’re too good at what we do,” he said.
A dozen miles away sits the Holm Boys Dairy, where Doran and Mariann Holm, a husband-and-wife team, no longer produce milk for sale, an all-too-common circumstance with milk prices just starting to emerge from a devastating five-year trough. The Holms raise organic dairy cows for others, and both work outside the farm. Mariann inspects organic farms and Doran works at Organic Valley, a vast dairy coöperative that collects more than a billion dollars in annual revenue. After we toured the barn, where Mariann showed me the idle milking equipment, we sat at the kitchen table to talk politics. “Why did everybody vote for Trump? They wanted somebody who talks plain, who cuts through the B.S,” she told me. “I don’t think they blame him for what’s going on, though he may be exacerbating things. They’re praying to God that anything he does will work out.”
Holm has never voted for the Democratic Presidential candidate in a general election, but she voted in the 2016 primary for Senator Bernie Sanders. “I don’t know if I’m so far on the right I’m on the left. Or so far on the left I’m on the right,” she said. A few months ago, she travelled five hours to Storm Lake, Iowa, not to see Republicans but Democrats. Four Presidential candidates were talking about the rural economy, and she wanted to hear how Senator Elizabeth Warren and others would fix a system that seems stacked against small farmers and businesses. “We need Teddy Roosevelt!” she exclaimed. “We need people to break up the trusts. We need people to get the money out. That should be a Republican issue. I don’t think this comes across as fringe or loony-bin. Now I think people recognize it. In our criminal-justice system, who gets off and who goes to prison?” To her, voting for President too often seems to be a matter of choosing the lesser evil. “Give me an option,” she said. “If it’s not going to be Trump, who’s it going to be?”
Democrats struggled for years in Wisconsin, losing three gubernatorial elections to Scott Walker, an anti-union, socially conservative Republican who made it harder to vote and helped produce a gerrymandered electoral map that strongly favors the G.O.P. But the Party surged back in 2018, reëlecting Senator Tammy Baldwin and capturing all statewide offices, including the governorship, narrowly defeating Walker. The new Democratic chairman, elected in June, is Ben Wikler, a well-connected activist. Now thirty-eight, he returned home to Madison after serving as the Washington director of MoveOn.org. He has been travelling the state three or four days a week, urging Democrats to seek votes everywhere, not least among residents of the state’s rural reaches who feel neglected by Washington and by Madison. I asked Wikler to describe his message. “Fundamentally, it’s ‘We have your back,’ ” he said. “From health care, to fighting the deadly combination of monopoly and a misbegotten trade war, to water you feel safe putting in your kids’ Thermos, Democrats understand what people face, and side with regular people against powerful interests.”
In Dunn County, home to about forty-five thousand people, with a median household income of fifty-four thousand dollars, the new Democratic chair is the thirty-nine-year-old Bill Hogseth, who works for the Wisconsin Farmers Union. He describes himself as a “rural progressive populist” and displays “Bernie” and “Warren” stickers on his Pontiac. When we spoke, he recalled that, in 2008, local campaign offices pulsed with volunteers for Obama, while a deathly lull marked Clinton’s campaign four years later. “I was never asked to knock on a door,” he said. “What were they thinking?” He wonders what propelled Trump’s win. “Was the flip to Trump about Trump? Or was it the lack of organizing? Or the lack of people willing to work for that campaign?” Trump collected twelve hundred more votes than Romney in the county. Clinton received twenty-three hundred fewer votes than Obama.
When Hogseth took over, earlier this year, he asked several dozen politically active Dunn County voters, not all of whom were Democrats, why they had stayed on the sidelines. No one had asked for their help, they said, and they didn’t know how to get involved. Those things he could easily fix. He gathered about forty people who were leaning toward activism and led a two-hour meeting, advising them to tell their stories with a focus on values, not partisanship. “You find this common ground rather than, ‘What do you think about the tariffs or Medicare for All?’ ” He was gratified when fifteen people committed to holding meetings in their homes. “I really feel like organizing is what’s going to get us out of this mess,” he said.
Wisconsin Republicans, who caught the Democrats by surprise in winning a state Supreme Court seat in April, are not sitting on their hands. They’ve held training sessions for volunteers, and they’re working with a recently appointed state director for Trump Victory, a combined effort of the Republican National Committee and the Trump campaign. Mandi Merritt, an R.N.C. spokesperson in Washington, said that the national Party has invested more than three hundred million dollars in its data program and ground game since 2013. She told me that the Party and the campaign started “earlier than ever” and will build a “grassroots army” two million volunteers strong. “Try as they might,” she said, of Democrats, “that’s not something they’re going to be able to compete with.”
I caught up with with Bill Arndt, the seventy-three-year-old chair of the Dunn County Republicans. He described the local Party as just starting to get organized, and he was rather less effusive than Merritt. “We’re a pretty low-budget county here,” Arndt told me. “We have to watch what we’re spending.” He explained that he’s getting some help from the state G.O.P. and expects more support next year, and he’s not worried. Trump is in good shape with voters, Arndt said, given “his tax reduction, his border, and his law and order.” He pointed to the help-wanted signs that seem to be everywhere in Menomonie and said that the Democrats have alienated many voters. “The far left have really went off the edge, in their Green New Deal and probably their stance on illegal migration,” he said. “Hillary would be a moderate compared with what they’re running now.” The G.O.P. is relentless in its messaging, portraying Democrats as left-wing ideologues, in texts, e-mails, digital ads, and on social media, not to mention the President’s tweets and speeches. “The Democrats STILL can’t get it through their tiny brains that Americans, LIKE YOU, are rejecting their radical SOCIALIST agenda,” a mid-September e-mail from the Republican National Committee and the Trump 2020 campaign read.
Democrats have about ten months before they hold their national convention in Milwaukee, across the state, to decide which candidate is best positioned, and best equipped, to respond to the Republican onslaught. From Farm-City Day at Denmark Dairy, I drove two hours to La Crosse, to ask Representative Ron Kind, a Democratic moderate, for his thoughts. His sprawling district stretches more than two hundred miles along the Mississippi River and includes Dunn County. The occasion was Kind’s eighteenth annual corn roast at the county fairgrounds, where several hundred fans showed up on a Friday night to eat corn and bratwurst and drink beer while listening to a polka band. Kind, who is fifty-six, has navigated the shifting political currents to win twelve straight congressional elections, drawing votes from ticket-splitters. Lately, he has been hammering Trump’s tariffs as a “reckless” burden on farmers. His current worry, he told me as he worked the crowd, is that Trump is “going to give the store away, just for 2020. He’s capable of cutting a bad deal, just for his electoral chances.” In Kind’s view, “a lot of these voters are up for grabs, especially given the crisis in the rural economy, the farm-commodity prices, and the President’s trade war.” Pointing to September’s sluggish employment numbers, he said, “If this economy continues to soften, it’s game over.”
Kind believes that Democrats can’t rely on Democratic enthusiasm alone but must collect some swing voters, whom he described as pragmatic. “I’m not sensing a whole lot of ‘We need to blow up the place,’ as opposed to ‘We really need to get this guy out of office.’ What I hear more than ever is people are tired. They’re exhausted with the high drama coming out of the White House, the daily tweets, the polarization. They kind of want to take a deep, collective breath and right the ship again, and start being America again.” As Kind took the stage beneath fluorescent lights, facing five long rows of picnic tables adorned with blue and white helium balloons, he declared, “Folks, next year is going to be huge in Wisconsin. Whatever Presidential candidate carries my district will be the next President of the United States.”
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