Every Wisconsinite knows two names: Aaron Rodgers, quarterback for the Green Bay Packers, and Scott Walker, the governor of the state. Rodgers has roused loyal Packers fans by leading the team to a Super Bowl victory and this year’s NFC championship game. Walker, who ran for president but dropped out before the Iowa caucuses, also has mobilized Wisconsin Republicans to overcome long odds—from his own recall election victory in 2012 to Trump’s 2016 presidential election results.
Rodgers’ roles in fun commercials for local insurance companies make him seem relatable and normal; Walker publicly praises his Harley-Davidson motorcycle and jokes about his embarrassing jean shorts—but not to the same effect. While Rodgers enjoys an 80 percent approval rating as he smashes his rivals, Walker’s consistent pummeling of state Democrats only earns him 38 percent favorability. The governor has picked fights on highly partisan issues—unions, voter identification, and women’s healthcare—that have made him a divisive figure in the statewide political discussion. Though Packers’ fans would do anything to keep Rodgers, it remains unclear whether they’ll embrace Walker too.
Wisconsin made waves in the recent presidential election as it went red for the first time in over thirty years, giving all ten of its electoral votes to Donald Trump. The rural areas of the state, controlled by Republicans for decades, provide a strong conservative base. But Wisconsin’s liberal cities usually have high voter turnout, which strikes a balance within the state. This equilibrium will face its next test in 2018 when the governor’s office is on the ballot. Though Walker has not officially announced a bid for reelection, many suspect he will run again. If Democrats want to stand up to Republicans in Wisconsin, this election is a must-win.
Perhaps most interesting about Wisconsin politics is that the experts always seem wrong. Newspapers said Walker would lose the recall election and polls on the presidential election showed Hillary Clinton ahead for the entire race. Wisconsin defied both of these expectations—and people in Wisconsin will tell you they knew it all along. To find where Wisconsin is headed, I went back to my birthplace and talked to my fellow Cheeseheads. Hearing these people’s stories, I thought, would be the best way to measure the political climate of America’s Dairyland.
Linda and Lonni Ramazini-Zahn were wearing Rodgers jerseys on the plane back home to Milwaukee, Wisconsin on Tuesday, December 20. As the plane took off, we talked about the game from the previous Sunday, where the Packers narrowly beat their divisional rival, the Chicago Bears, to keep their playoff hopes alive. Linda expressed pessimism about the team’s chances in the upcoming games. Lonni disagreed.
“People always seem to get Wisconsin wrong. Nobody gives us enough credit—underdogs or not,” Lonni explained.
Lonni is a foreman for a construction company. He’s been working his way up the chain of command for thirty years, and it shows in the wrinkles on his knuckles and the deep lines on his palms. He said he’s tired every day after work, but he can “really see the fruits of his labor.” The construction job provides him with enough money to live comfortably, but the work can go as quickly as it comes. He never went to college.
“School wasn’t for me. At the time, that was no big deal. Nowadays, though, I’m not sure. People look at you differently,” Lonni reflected.
“People look at you differently because you’re a crabby old man, Lon,” Linda retorted. Linda works as a manager at Sherwin-Williams; she says paint “runs in her blood”.
“Life isn’t as bad as people outside make it out to be. We work hard, we pay our taxes, we go to church,” she said.
Linda spoke at length about her family over the past ten years. Her voice, which was cheerful and energetic before, seemed to sink as she recalled times of illness and unemployment.
“They worked in a circle. Someone would lose their job, then get sick, and then never be able to get another job because they were always sick,” she lamented.
And things never changed. Linda did not mention who she voted for back in 2008, but she did allude to “having hope in something new.” But this hope, she said, went unfulfilled.
“It’s difficult, you know, to make it by? This whole thing with healthcare: it doesn’t seem to work. The Democrats say one thing and the Republicans say another thing, but all I’m seeing is our costs go up. It doesn’t matter who’s right and wrong to me,” Linda said.
Lonni noticed a similar pattern. He recalled his first years with his new company. He was getting promotions ahead of those who had been there for much longer and who knew “much more than he ever did.”
“I’d talk to these guys and ask why they never wanted to be a project manager or a foreman. Why didn’t they put in just a little extra work, you know? And I always got the same answer: they didn’t care,” Lonni said.
Lonni said his frustration was with the apathy. Plenty of young kids showed up on his worksite, he told me, and they were just there to get the money. He said there was no motivation or inspiration to do anything more.
“So why are my tax dollars going to help people like that? I’m not angry and I’m not a racist. I’m really trying to do what’s best for my family,” Lonni explained.
I asked them about a few of then-President-elect Donald Trump’s remarks, both during and after the campaign. Linda scowled. Lonni shook his head.
“Hear me out: I don’t agree with most of that, right? But I didn’t hear a whole lot else. I had to turn off the debates after a while. I just couldn’t keep track,” Lonni said.
“It’s so difficult nowadays to really see what [the candidates] believe in and what’s true or not. [Hillary Clinton] just didn’t say things I really believed. She seemed so untrustworthy,” Linda added.
She clarified she didn’t really like Trump; she was reluctant to vote for him. Her husband agreed.
“I’m not set on voting for him again. He’s not my favorite guy. When elections roll around again, I’ll do my best to figure out who is going to be best for me,” Lonni added.
I reminded them about the 2018 elections in Wisconsin. Walker’s announcement about his reelection campaign is expected once the 2017 budget is submitted.
“I’m a big Walker fan,” commented Lonni. “He’s been a great governor so far—voted for him every time.”
“My whole family votes for Walker. He’s normal and he gets things done, unlike [former Wisconsin governor Jim Doyle], and we really need someone who understands the balance,” Linda said.
Walker’s Democratic competitor is currently unknown. With Walker defeating various opponents through multiple elections, including the historic 2012 recall election, the Democratic bench has taken a hit. Milwaukee mayor Tom Barrett is one option, but he has already suffered two losses to Walker. Other potential names include former Wisconsin State Senator Tim Cullen and Dane County Executive Joe Parisi.
As the Ramazini-Zahns said, apathy can be the real killer in Wisconsin politics. Democrats may be weak because there is little to stir the base; outreach efforts have slowed, and the election results have left many Wisconsinites dejected.
But some Wisconsin residents are incredibly enthusiastic about state politics. A man who would only give the name “Dave” spoke about his enthusiasm for Trump.
“He was the best candidate. I campaigned furiously as soon as it was clear he was serious,” Dave said.
Dave added that few people “suspect” him of being a Trump supporter. If it comes up in conversation, he’ll mention it, but he said he doesn’t “look the part.”
“When people think ‘rural Trump voter’, they don’t think of me,” Dave explained, “I don’t wear camo, I don’t have an accent, I don’t say hateful things.”
Dave said he works at a local marketing firm, which is where he met his wife. Both are Wisconsin natives, which was evident from the cow keychain proudly displayed on his key ring. Dave is soft-spoken, and he talked slowly, like he was meticulously choosing the next word to leave his mouth. His face was hidden behind his coffee mug as he sipped and listened to my question, but quickly lit up as he gave answers.
Dave said his primary concern is for his children, both of whom are very young. He showed worn pictures of them in his wallet.
“There’s gotta be a good world for them. I’m worried about my family and what kind of America they’re going to grow up in,” Dave explained.
Dave said he believed Trump was his best bet for the future. Trump’s vision and message convinced him that America could be fixed.
“I’m more passionate about ideas. Clinton didn’t have any. I had heard them all before. Trump was a different candidate, someone who knows how to build a business, and I think that can transfer over to the presidency,” Dave said.
Yet his opinion on Walker differed sharply.
“Walker is destroying Wisconsin. We lose jobs; he strips away union power. Our state budget won’t balance. He takes away money from schools. Doesn’t make sense to me,” said Dave.
Dave criticized the Democratic party’s efforts in Wisconsin. He said he noticed that the Republican party used many local mobilization strategies that the Democratic party seemed to overlook.
And Dave’s critique isn’t unique. Clinton faced routine questions about her lack of campaign stops in Wisconsin and other states in the final weeks of the campaign. Some even said it was misguided for her to try to capture typically Republican states instead of working to maintain the Democratic-leaning ones.
Dave remarked that he saw her loss coming all along.
“As soon as she stopped coming up here, I knew it was over. Those polls and analysts can all say whatever they want, but they need to start looking at a smaller level. We’re people, not numbers,” he explained.
These generalizations don’t only harm Trump supporters in Wisconsin; Democrats feel the pain too. Heather Huber of Wausau feels snubbed as a Wisconsin Democrat.
“When they thought the state was Democratic, we were ignored. Now, after this election, it seems like the party gave up. We can’t win either way,” Huber said.
Huber went to a local college and now works as a business manager in Wisconsin. She said she’s been a Democrat for life, and was seriously disappointed with both Clinton and her Senate candidate Russ Feingold, who also lost to incumbent Ron Johnson.
“I’m not really sure where it all went wrong. Everybody was saying we had it in the bag. I still don’t know what caused it all,” Huber said.
She said her confusion was not unique – many of her colleagues discussed the results with disbelief the following day. Huber also said she could not fathom how many of her fellow Wisconsinites voted for Trump.
“It just doesn’t make sense to me. Nobody I talked to liked the guy. He said crazy things — hurtful, too — and I didn’t think people here were like that,” Huber added.
Huber said her passion for the Democratic Party was inspired by its core belief in equity. She explained she had grown up in a very poor neighborhood. Her gaze wandered as she described her childhood home: A roof—and a family—falling apart.
“I climbed out of there, and lots of Republicans want everyone to do the same thing. I’m here to tell you that not everyone can do it. Not because they don’t want to, but because something is in their way. Just not fair, I guess,” Huber explained.
Huber apologized immediately after making that remark. She said that labelling people without getting to know them is troublesome. Expressing frustration with some of the news articles written about her home state, she was initially hesitant to answer my questions..
“It seems like journalists came in and studied us. Like we’re animals. Or aliens. They published all these articles about ‘investigating Trump’s America’ or ‘exploring the Midwest’ and it made me uncomfortable,” she said. “How can people who only live a few states away treat me like a different species?”
Despite this, Huber thinks local elections might be most important in changing how Wisconsin operates. She suspects 2018 will be an important year. While she’s not exactly sure who will run against Walker, Huber resolves to more actively support the Democrats.
“Even if I get frustrated or angry, I know I have to be productive. If [the Democratic Party] can get a good candidate, I’ll do whatever it takes. Everybody has to. If we can do that, maybe 2020 will be different,” Huber said.
Wisconsin has a long time to wait until 2018, but that doesn’t mean the process will slow down. As the snow melts, yard signs will sprout from the earth like the flowers of spring. The excitement of football games will be replaced with political advertisements, and political talk will descend upon Wisconsin and sweep through the population like a pandemic, infecting arguments for months to come. While uncertainty lingers, one fact rings true:
“This whole state could go to shit, but if I’m watching the Packer game on a Sunday afternoon, nothin’ else really matters,” Lonni said with a smile.