LITTLE CHUTE, Wisconsin. – The 12,000 residents of this village 24 miles south of Green Bay supported Barack Obama in 2012 and Donald Trump in 2016. But in 2018 they made a narrow split decision – a margin of 461 votes for Gov. Scott Walker , a conservative Republican and a 132-vote advantage for Senator Tammy Baldwin, a Liberal Democrat.
Surrounded by former stationery towns, Little Chute sits in the heart of Fox Valley, a three-county stretch from Green Bay to Oshkosh, the most politically competitive region in one of America’s major battlefield states. .
Democrats tend to focus their campaigns in Wisconsin on mobilizing voters in the liberal cities of Milwaukee and Madison, while Republicans focus on the conservative suburbs that ring Milwaukee. But it’s often the Fox Valley where statewide elections are won or lost.
And this year there is a new wildcard, the coronavirus, which is rampant in Fox Valley, with a new number of cases averaging nearly 600 per day.
The three counties – Brown, Outagamie and Winnebago – all backed Mr. Obama in 2008, and two of the three narrowly picked Mitt Romney in 2012 before all backing Mr. Trump four years later. But like Little Chute, in 2018 all three counties backed Mr Walker, who narrowly lost his candidacy for a third term as governor, and Ms Baldwin, who was re-elected to the Senate.
“It’s a purple region in a purple state, and the purple regions oscillate with the times,” said Senator Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, a Republican from Oshkosh.
The combination of former industrial towns and rural voters who migrated to the Republican Party, with college towns and small towns becoming more democratic and Catholic voters inclined to support Democrats as long as they are not too adamant abortion rights has made the region, comprising the third, fifth and sixth largest counties in the state, the ultimate presidential battleground.
It is the seat of the John Birch Society and the birthplace of McCarthyism – Senator Joseph McCarthy was born in Grand Chute – but he worships Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers, one of the foremost activists for the social justice of the NFL.
It is also an epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak in Wisconsin. All three counties have new virus case counts that exceed the state average for last week. Of the 15 cities with the country’s worst coronavirus epidemics, eight are in Wisconsin and five – Appleton, Fond du Lac, Green Bay, Manitowoc and Oshkosh – are in the greater Fox Valley. And it can change the political equation in an area that is usually not motivated by national issues.
“There is, I think, a sense of hopelessness about how we are going to survive,” said Amanda Stuck, the Democratic House candidate for Appleton. “We have to go back to work. But at the same time, we see stories every day about the capacity of our hospitals, and we don’t know what we’re going to do here if the beds keep filling up.
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Interviews with voters in the region revealed an unusual number of people who played table tennis between parties during election years – and sometimes on the same ballot.
David Werley, a Green Bay lawyer, voted for Mr. Obama in 2008, Mr. Romney in 2012 and libertarian Gary Johnson in 2016. On Wednesday afternoon, he cast a marked ballot for the former deputy. President Joseph R. Biden Jr. in a drop box outside Green Bay City Hall.
“I am a true independent voter,” said Werley, 34. “I’m really looking at the person. I check if they are genuine or not. “
Mr Werley said there were few issues motivating his allegiance at the polls. Instead, it focuses on being able to trust a candidate.
“I liked Rand Paul and Bernie Sanders,” he said of the Republican Socialist and Arch-Conservative Democrat. “They’ve been saying the same thing forever. I like sincere people who are not going to jump on the latest poll.
Mr Trump is expected to hold a campaign rally at Green Bay Airport on Friday afternoon, one of the few campaign stops in the region in the countdown to Election Day. Donald Trump Jr. addressed his supporters Tuesday in De Pere, and Pete Buttigieg, the former mayor of South Bend, Ind., Mayor and Democratic hopeful for president, hesitated last week for Mr Biden in a brewery across from Lambeau Field, home of the locally beloved Packers.
Mr Biden did not visit Brown, Outagamy or Winnebago counties in 2020, but he made a campaign stop in September in Manitowoc, a manufacturing hub in a Republican county 40 miles east on the shore of Lake Michigan. Hillary Clinton’s only planned campaign stop in Wisconsin in 2016 was believed to have been in Green Bay, but she canceled it after the Pulse nightclub mass shooting in Orlando, Florida.
“Think of Fox Valley as New Hampshire as a general election voter,” said Thomas Nelson, the Outagamie County executive who grew up in Little Chute and now lives in Appleton.
Mr Nelson, a Democrat who launched a 2022 candidacy for Mr Johnson’s Senate seat on Monday, said voters in that part of Wisconsin were much less likely to vote reflexively for either party .
“Candidates for elections are expected to take their constituents seriously and work hard for their vote,” he said.
Mr Johnson had previously pledged to retire after two terms, but in an interview on Wednesday he said he was leaning towards a third term in 2022. “Things have changed,” he said . “The house is no longer a firewall. I have to see what happens in this election.
Charles Franklin, the Marquette Law School pollster who leads the state’s most respected political inquiry, said Fox Valley’s story is that its towns – Appleton, Green Bay and Oshkosh – are becoming more democratic as that rural areas have become more republican.
In between, there are communities that once had populations of loyal union Democrats who turned political chameleons with the closure of mills and factories.
“These counties are becoming more competitive as they become more polarized between cities and countryside,” Franklin said. “There are enough people living outside the cities that this is not a safe realignment with the Democrats.”
In Little Chute, a series of voters voting in the village hall Thursday said they jumped from party to party in the recent election.
Terry Rathsack, a retired chef, said he voted for Mr. Obama and then Mr. Trump, whom he supported a second time because of the president’s stance against abortion. He said there was no consensus among his friends and neighbors on who to vote for.
“It’s all mixed up,” Mr. Rathsack said. “Everyone I talk to is for someone else.”
Across the plaza from Village Hall, Linda McDaniel, a retiree who volunteers to visit the village’s 110-foot-tall wooden Dutch windmill, said she had been a Bush voter who migrated to Mr. Obama and that she supports Mr. Biden.
“I’m not always a Democrat, it depends on the person,” she said. “I think a lot of people vote Trump because of the abortion. I don’t like abortion either, I’m against it too, but I don’t like Trump.
While the Fox Valley is often competitive in statewide elections, its political representation is determined by Wisconsin’s fiercely gerrymandered legislative and parliamentary maps. It is divided between two congressional districts and Little Chute, with only 12,000 residents, is divided between three districts, each in the Senate and the Assembly of the State of Wisconsin.
As a result, Democrats in the region are vastly outnumbered by Republicans in the state legislature, and none of its congressional districts are considered competitive.
Ms Stuck, a state assembly member and public school substitute teacher who is running in Congress against Rep. Mike Gallagher, a Republican from Green Bay, said the region’s economic diversity means its constituents are out listening and influenced by national trends.
“We have a manufacturing base, we have a farming base, we just have a really unique blend that can really feel what’s going on,” she said in an interview outside an Appleton cafe on Thursday. “The people here are really affected by these national decisions and so maybe they are paying more attention and are ready to change according to what they think is best for them.”
Reid Ribble, a Republican from Sherwood, right on top of Lake Winnebago in Appleton, represented the region in Congress for six years before retiring after the 2016 election. He said his former constituents did not commit in the sort of tribal political warfare that takes place in Milwaukee, Madison, and rural parts of the state.
“They are a little more discriminating than being trapped in following a particular party protocol,” he said. “You will see people voting for Biden and for Mike Gallagher for Congress.”
At the Little Chute Village Hall, Joe Driessen, 63, a retired warehouse manager, voted for George W. Bush, then for Mr. Obama, did not run in the 2016 election and voted for Mr. Biden Thursday.
Mr. Driessen’s caregiver, Stephanie Osburn, 35, an Appletonian, pushed her wheelchair to the village hall. She said the coronavirus wouldn’t play a big factor in her decision – she had it and didn’t think it was that bad. “I had a worse hangover,” she says.
She voted for Mr Obama, then Mr Johnson in 2016 and is not sure what to do this year.
“I still haven’t made a final decision,” she said. “Both have positive and negative things.”