Trump must hold on to rural Wisconsin voters

The bottom line

Kyle Wolf, owner of the booming Wolf Brothers Sawmill, loaded shavings for a customer in Stetsonville, Wis. “We’re huge fans” of the Trump administration.

Trump must hold onto the rural Wis. voters he won on economic promises.

Third in an occasional series by Judy Keen • Photos by Glen Stubbe
Star Tribune • June 9, 2019Proving Ground: Wisconsin

Trump counts on rural Wisconsin economy to help him hold the state in 2020

Trump must keep rural Wis. voters he won on economic promises. 

By Judy Keen Star Tribune June 9, 2019 — 6:46am

STETSONVILLE, WIS. – Sawmill operator Kyle Wolf credits Donald Trump for helping revive his business in this rural area that strongly backed the president in 2016.

“We’re huge fans,” said Wolf, 29, who runs Wolf Brothers Sawmill. The Trump administration in late 2017 imposed import duties averaging 21% on Canadian timber products sent to the U.S.

“Pricing went up at least double,” Wolf said before depositing a load of sawdust in a customer’s truck. It has leveled off since then, but he has hired more workers — he has 10 now — and pays well above the $7.25 minimum wage.

Wisconsin Taylor co.

The Midwest remakes American politics

But Trump’s handling of the economy, his main argument for re-election, hasn’t been an unqualified success in north-central Wisconsin, which in 2016 helped break Democrats’ reliable grip on the state.

On the other side of the ledger, Bill Miller’s financial outlook is the reverse of Wolf’s. He and his wife, Antoinette, have 60 cows on a 300-acre farm. After Trump put tariffs on steel and aluminum imports, foreign markets for U.S. dairy products dwindled.

“Three years ago, milk was a little over $20 for 100 pounds. This winter it was down to $13. Right now it’s up a little over $16,” he said at a smelt-fry fundraiser for Jump River’s volunteer fire department. “I’m just hoping I can hang in until I get old enough to retire.” Miller, 58, doesn’t follow politics.

Trump’s shot at a second term could come down to places like Jump River and Stetsonville in Taylor County, where the economy is always on people’s minds.

Trump won Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania with pledges to restore jobs. “The poverty rate for Wisconsin families has reached the lowest rate in 22 years. The unemployment rate for Wisconsin workers has reached historic lows, never been this low before ever, ever, ever,” Trump said April 27 in Green Bay.

Top: The Jump River Volunteer Fire Department’s smelt fry fundraiser got the thumbs-up from Bill Miller, with his wife, Antoinette Miller. Left: Jim Nowacki took his son Dakota fishing at Miller Dam in Taylor County, Wis. Right: Susie Krug, owner of Krug’s Northwoods Game Birds in Perkinstown, Wis., ran pheasant eggs through a washer. “I like Trump, to be honest. He’s doing us good. We have less unemployment. I just wish he would keep his mouth shut and stay off Twitter,” she said.

His statement was accurate; the state jobless rate in April was 2.8%. Taylor County’s rate is higher. It fell from 4.5% in March to 3.4% in April.

The county gave Trump 70% of its votes in 2016 — his second-largest margin in Wisconsin, which in turn was a surprise linchpin of his victory. The state had not supported a Republican presidential candidate since 1984, when Ronald Reagan was re-elected.

Democrats chose Milwaukee as the site of their 2020 convention, underscoring their determination to reclaim Wisconsin as a bulwark of their once-formidable blue wall across the Midwest. Trump needs the state to duplicate his 2016 Electoral College win.

A Marquette University Law School Poll conducted April 3-7 found that 28% of Wisconsin voters definitely planned to vote for Trump next year; 46% said they’ll definitely vote for someone else.

Logging was this area’s first big business in the late 1800s and remains active today. Much later, Medford, the county seat, called itself the world’s mink capital. After a slump, that industry has rebounded a bit. It’s also farm country, although a big chunk of the county is part of the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest.

But manufacturing drives Taylor County’s economy now: The biggest employers make windows, doors and Tombstone pizzas.

“There are a lot of large manufacturers for such a rural county, and manufacturing employment has been increasing over the past year,” said Thomas Michels, a regional economist for the Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development. Taylor County’s population is expected to grow though 2035, he said.

Factories in Medford have worker shortages, but some offer low pay and minimal benefits. Many young people leave for better-paying jobs. More than 1,400 Wisconsin farms stopped producing milk over the past couple of years, including some in Taylor County.

Historical presidential
elections in Wisconsin

Click a year to see how the state voted in the last five presidential elections, county by county.

2000

2004

2008

2012

2016

TAYLOR CO.

Wis.Taylor Co.
Bush47.6%✔ 58.7%
Gore✔ 47.8%36.2%
Wis.Taylor Co.
Bush49.3%✔ 58.5%
Kerry✔ 49.7%40.1%
Wis.Taylor Co.
McCain42.3%✔ 49.1%
Obama✔ 56.2% 48.8%
Wis.Taylor Co.
Romney45.9%✔ 58.9%
Obama✔ 52.8%39.6%
Wis.Taylor Co.
Trump✔ 47.2%✔ 69.5%
Clinton46.5%25.3%

The demographic and economic view from Taylor County

POPULATION
2018 population20,412
White, non-Hispanic/Latino96%
Foreign-born population1.4%
Median age43.4
ECONOMY
Number of companies480
High school or higher88.5%
Median household income$49,821
Below poverty level10.9%
Unemployment (March. 2019)4.5%

Source: U.S. Census Bureau, U.S. Labor Department

Despite the financial uncertainty, county voters favored Gov. Scott Walker and U.S. Senate hopeful Leah Vukmir last fall. Both Republicans lost statewide, suggesting broader shifts in support for their party.

Medford, population 4,300, seems to be booming. Most Main Street storefronts are occupied, and the Walmart on the edge of town is busy.

Marilyn Frank opened a catering business in a former fire station in 2010 and four years ago expanded it to include a restaurant that was hopping on a recent Thursday for the weekly pizza special.

“I feel like people are thinking they’re doing OK,” said Frank, 48, who has a half-dozen employees. “People are confident enough to come out and spend $20, $30 on a pizza and a couple of beverages.” If that changes, she said, “I’ll notice.”

But Frank, who has two grown kids, doesn’t have health insurance for herself. “It would be nice to be able to afford it,” she said, but she didn’t like former President Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act and is wary of the government-run health care plans backed by some Democratic presidential candidates.

Susie Krug, 69, has no complaints about the economy under Trump. She founded Krug’s Northwoods Game Birds in 1977 with three pheasant hens. It now produces a half-million eggs, chicks and adult birds every year in rural Taylor County.

“I like Trump, to be honest. He’s doing us good. We have less unemployment. I just wish he would keep his mouth shut and stay off Twitter,” she said.

Medford, Wis., population 4,300, seems to be booming, with occupied storefronts and businesses expanding.

Democratic activists in Taylor County see opportunity in Krug’s last observation.

“I feel like there are a lot of people out there that voted for Trump who are starting to go, ‘Wow, I’m waking up,’ ” Monty Exum, 67, of Jump River, said over coffee with fellow Democrats at Uncommon Ground, a coffee shop in Medford.

Sue Roupp, who lives in Rib Lake, said that her party must make the case that it’s “fighting for the soul of America, meaning that we’re honest … and helpful and we don’t demean or enjoy making people powerless or kicking them out of the country.”

The group agreed that to win, their party must be more assertive in making that case.

“I don’t mean we need to knock somebody over the head,” said Jim Gray, 69, who recently moved from Minnesota to Chelsea Lake. “We need to be more active” by knocking on doors to recruit voters and standing up to people who think Trump has made it OK to express bias, he said.

“We have to get the signs out, do editorials, talk to people,” said Scott Stalheim, 69, from Little Black. “Some of those brave souls — maybe it’s only 10% of them — will cross the line [and abandon Trump]. That can swing the election.”

Taylor County Republicans are just as motivated. Trump’s candidacy contributed to a resurgence of interest in the GOP after its membership declined from about 100 dues-paying members to 40 or so. There are now about 80, said chairman Mike Bub, 62.

“We can’t make the same mistake we made before and think we’re always going to win. We have to stay organized and keep reminding people every vote matters,” he said.

Brian Hedlund, 62, is a former GOP county chairman who owns a Medford insurance agency. He doesn’t expect a drop-off in support for the president in Taylor County.

“Trump wasn’t my number one choice. He wasn’t my number two choice, and I’m not sure he was my number three choice,” he said. “But I don’t know how anyone can deny that our economic affairs in this country aren’t vastly better than they were eight years ago or four years ago.”

Hedlund likes Trump “despite his character.”

Mary Williams, 69, a state Assembly member for 12 years, sees a double standard. “He’s getting battered for things other presidents or other political people have done,” she said. “My personal opinion on why people don’t like him: because he wasn’t a politician.”

Eric Trump made a campaign stop at a Medford restaurant Williams owned just days before the 2016 election. “We’re going to win Wisconsin,” he predicted. Williams and Bub also live in Medford.

As he supervised a sporting-clay shooting competition at MRC Sportsman’s Club, Gary Kapfhamer, 69, called himself “kind of” a Trump fan. He doesn’t pay close attention to politics, but he objects to what he considers endless, expensive and fruitless investigations of the president.

“Let the president do his job,” Kapf­hamer said. “He’s fighting.” He said he understands why so many Taylor County voters are on Trump’s team: “It’s because there are so many hardworking people around here.”

While he waited for pizza at Marilyn’s in Medford, funeral home owner Jeff Hemer, 62, said he’s dismayed by the bitterness that taints political discourse here. He’s neither a Democrat nor a Republican.

Top: Logging, along with manufacturing and farming, are Taylor County’s economic engines. Left: Monty Exum gathered with fellow Democratic activists, including wife Rhonda Lewan, left, and Peggy Stalheim, at a coffee shop in Medford. Exum feels Trump voters are “starting to go, ‘Wow, I’m waking up.’” Right: Gary Kapfhamer, at a sporting-clay shooting event at the Medford Sportsman’s Club, said he’s “kind of” a Trump fan.

“What frustrates me is Republicans and Democrats — I don’t know if it’s statewide or nationwide — who just can’t get along anymore,” he said. “We can’t sit down at a table and talk politics like we used to. It’s pretty polarized and that to me is troubling … and it turns me off to politics.”

Jaco van der Berg, 35, used almost identical words to describe his reaction to political spats he overhears at Uncommon Ground, which he owns. He’s from Namibia and moved here after marrying a woman from Medford.

“What frustrates me more than anything is how black and white they are. There’s no middle ground,” said van der Berg, who votes but doesn’t belong to a party. He wishes people would just listen to one other.

At the smelt fry in Jump River, Fred Stendel explained that he voted for a third-party candidate in 2016. He’s not very fired up about the next presidential election either.

Trump’s appeal to people with modest incomes, including union members, puzzles him. “They just love this guy. Maybe what he’s trying to do is right, but I sure hate the way he treats people,” said Stendel, 70, a farmer who got out of the dairy business years ago.

“I wouldn’t even know who to begin to vote for” in the sprawling Democratic field, he said, but he’s wary of former Vice President Joe Biden, the current front-runner. “I don’t know if I want a 76-year-old guy at the helm.”

Back at Uncommon Ground, Taylor County Democrats listed the reasons they feel optimistic about the election that is 514 days away.

Rhonda Lewan, 65, who is Exum’s wife, cited April’s Wisconsin Supreme Court election. Appeals Court Judge Lisa Neubauer, favored by Democrats, came within a few thousand votes of upsetting colleague Brian Hagedorn.

It’s telling, Lewan said, that among people she knows, “nobody admits to voting for Trump.” When she talks with some people she assumed are Republicans because of their background or views, “you find out how many of them really aren’t,” she said.

“Things will change,” said Al Roupp, Sue’s husband, who until then had been silent in the group discussion. “They have to change, and we have to make them change.”

Ann Rusch, 73, who lives in Rib Lake, first said she’s not hopeful because of public indifference to climate change and giant corporations’ ability to avoid taxes. She had a different perspective after hearing Roupp’s comment.

“I think the only reason [Trump] won was because people were looking for a change,” she said. “I think after four years of him, people are going to want another change.”

Top: Former GOP county chairman Brian Hedlund showed off his ceramic donkey and elephant at his insurance office in Medford. Hedlund likes Trump “despite his character.” Left: Workers arrived for a shift at a large window manufacturer in Medford, where “Now Hiring” signs are common. Right: Marilyn Frank worked another busy evening at her pizza restaurant. “I feel like people are thinking they’re doing OK,” she said, though she can’t afford health insurance.

Ben Wikler to lead Wisconsin Democrats into 2020

Delegates to the Wisconsin Democratic Party 2019 convention in Milwaukee elected Ben Wikler to lead the party as we go into the 2020 elections. Wikler, a Madison native, has a long history working for progressive Democrats in Wisconsin and Minnesota. He recently served as director of MoveOn.org, and actively worked to support Elizabeth Warren’s campaign for president. He ran on a slate with Felesia Martin and Lee Snodgrass.