Wisconsin could hinge on a single county

Racine has voted for George W. Bush, Paul Ryan -- and Barack Obama. Inside the country's most bipolar battleground

By Patrick Caldwell

Published October 25, 2012 3:46PM (EDT)

This article originally appeared on The American Prospect.

The American Prospect On a chilly evening in early October, Jay Ferus stood waiting in the Family Dollar store's parking lot in Racine, Wisconsin. By the time I pulled up, Ferus was already an hour into his 4-9 p.m. shift as a canvasser for Working America, the labor group he represents. A chipper 49-year-old with black rectangular glasses and salt-and-pepper hair, he spends most of his time traversing the suburbs of Milwaukee, but on this Wednesday he'd driven an hour south to Racine. He held an iPad on top of a clipboard thick with sheets of paper listing the reasons why Working America had endorsed Barack Obama for president and Tammy Baldwin for the state’s open U.S. Senate seat. "Who stands with America's working families?" blared a headline at the top of each side of the flyer.

Ferus looked out of place with an iPad in front of the discount store, which sits on an unglamorous stretch of Washington Avenue down the block from payday lenders and pawnshops. It's not an unusual scene in Racine: The post-industrial, Rust Belt town was decimated in the late ’70s when plants that once employed more than 20,000 workers left the city. Jobs have been hard to come by ever since, and Racine’s troubles only magnified when the recession hit in 2008. Its 9.2 percent unemployment rate in July (the latest numbers available) ranked among the highest in the state, though it was a sharp improvement from February 2010, when jobless numbers peaked at 12 percent. Downtown, every other storefront is vacant. Even the suburban shopping mall just outside of the city limits shows signs of a weary economy—large retail spaces empty and a kiosk vender offering to buy gold.

Ferus greeted me with an ear-to-ear smile that I saw many times over the next three hours as we crisscrossed Racine, knocking on the doors where Ferus's iPad directed him. "I love doing this," he said. "Fresh air, talking to people, doing something to make a difference." We headed for the residential streets north of the Family Dollar store, which looked slightly better off—modest single-story bungalow homes inhabited predominately by white families who probably earn something close to the county's median household income of $53,000. Manry Park, as the neighborhood is called, embodies Racine's status as battleground political territory: Seemingly every other house had a different sign on the front lawn, a Romney-Ryan/Tommy Thompson for every Obama-Biden/Tammy Baldwin. Ferus's list tended to direct him toward the latter, which his employer had identified as probable working-class, Democratic-leaning households. Working America, an affiliate of the AFL-CIO, targets middle-class voters who would have belonged to unions had manufacturing not disappeared from the area. The group’s job became far easier last spring, when Republican Governor Scott Walker's push to strip public employees of collective-bargaining rights galvanized liberals and boosted the membership of pro-labor groups like Working America.

A few dyed-in-red Republican homes slipped through the cracks. At one house Ferus visited, a woman named Donna stepped to the door in a green bathrobe, accompanied by her husband. She curtly refused to answer Ferus's questions about whom she planned to vote for. "That's not your business," she said. She tried to refuse Ferus's literature, but her husband accepted it, then stepped out of the door. "I want to tell you something,” he said. “We are good Christian people and we don't align ourselves with what we see happening with Obama and Tammy Baldwin."

"Well, you make your own decisions and that's what it's all about," Ferus said, thanking the man for his time. "With social issues, don't even bother," he told me once we were back on the street. "When they step outside that's time to disengage because it's just wasting time that I could be talking to undecideds who are actually flip-able.”

It was those flip-able undecideds that Ferus most hoped to find. At one door, a woman named Elaine, who turned down the literature on account of her macular degeneration, told Ferus she was leaning toward Obama but hated both Senate candidates. After learning that she depended on Medicare, Ferus launched into a short-but-practiced spiel about how Thompson, like Romney, would decimate the program. That seemed to do the trick. "Well, he's an asshole," Elaine concluded.

She became one of scores of waffling Democratic-leaners whom Ferus, in just three hours, turned into committed Obama voters—unless that's just what they said to end the conversation.

* * *

For most of 2012, it didn’t look like Wisconsin voters would need much persuasion to vote for Obama. He won the state by 14 percent in 2008, and looked to be coasting to a comfortable win this go-around. But Obama's post-debate decline in nationwide polls was reflected in to Wisconsin, which had also gone Republican in the 2010 mid-terms. With recent polls putting Obama ahead by as little as one percent, Wisconsin is the most recent addition in the list of seven swing states where the campaigns are focusing their attention.

Romney’s hopes of carrying the state—a feat no Republican has managed since the Reagan landslide of 1984—may rest with Racine County. It's one of the swingiest territories not just in Wisconsin, but in the entire country. Racine County is part of the Paul Ryan's congressional district, and it went for George W. Bush in both 2000 and 2004. But then Obama carried the county by a healthy 53-46 percent margin. In 2010, Racine's residents switched back to the Republican ledger, voting for Scott Walker by a 13-point margin. They favored him again in the recall election this past June—but during that same election, Racine recalled its Republican state senator, helping to flip majority control to Democrats in the state senate.

Given this track record, it’s no surprise that the chairs of both the Racine Republican and Democratic parties use the same word to describe the county’s politics: “schizophrenic." "Racine County is that sort of quintessential county in the state of Wisconsin," says Bill Folk, the GOP chair. "We tend to fluctuate."

Racine is a county of competing forces. It's been featured both on NPR’s This American Life for its folksy prom tradition and on an episode the History Channel's Gangland for its violent drug crime. The area is roughly divided into two distinct regions by Interstate 94, which cleaves the county in two. The highway serves as a barrier both physical and socio-economic. With a population of just over 78,000, Democratic-leaning Racine lies along Lake Michigan East of the interstate. Once you leave the city, the county quickly turns rural; West of the Interstate, the landscape is dotted by far-flung farms that overwhelmingly support Republicans.

Team Obama hasn't taken Racine for granted: Michelle Obama stopped through last Friday and Joe Biden is holding an event in nearby Kenosha tomorrow. The president, who campaigned here in 2008, has been missing this year, but he did return for a jam-packed town hall event in 2010. "I know that towns like Racine are still hurting from this recession," he said. "This city has the second-highest unemployment rate in the state, and I can only imagine how much pain that’s caused and how many lives have been upended." In the town hall portion, he fielded questions about trouble with mortgage servicers and the effectiveness of the stimulus. A pair of seventh grade boys asked about their future student loans, and a woman wondered how the president planned to bring back the jobs that had been shipped overseas.

Romney and Ryan, on the other hand, have bypassed the region in their Wisconsin trips, tending to rally the conservative faithful in Waukesha, a reliable Republican stronghold in suburban Milwaukee, outside the lines of Ryan's congressional district.

The outcome in November in this schizophrenic county will turn on two primary factors: base turnout and the independent, undecided voters who swing between the parties from election to election. The latter tend to be middle-class whites struggling through the recession. They’re Reagan Democrats and the children of Reagan Democrats, people who left the Democratic Party over social issues in the '80s. But they still respond to pro-labor politics even if the union halls now sit empty.

"I think there are a lot of people who are loyal to the unions, even if their own company doesn't have one anymore," says Jane Witt, the slight, grey-haired chair of the Racine County Democrats. "There are a lot of union sympathizers like me."

Witt is a 72-year-old retiree with a firecracker personality, and she doesn't mince words when describing the opposition party: "They're just killing us.” I met her on a rainy Saturday afternoon as she ambled about the party's downtown headquarters, red cane in hand. Canvassers bustled around the office used during the Walker recall, now repurposed for the general election and covered in Obama and Baldwin campaign posters and homemade signs. The largest hand-drawn poster proclaims, "This is what DEMOCRACY looks like,” with a life-sized cutout of Obama standing underneath.

Things are grim in Racine, Witt says—but that doesn’t necessarily translate into an advantage for Romney, because things were grim before Obama came along. "We had lost manufacturing jobs long before '08, so we did not start '08 from a good position at all,” she says. “I don't think there are more than a handful of people, relatively speaking, who are disillusioned and say 'Oh, we're going to try Romney now because we didn't get a job this year.’”

* * *

While the Democrats have located themselves in a highly visible spot in downtown Racine, it’s no easy trick to find the local Republican “victory center.” While technically within the city limits, it’s nestled on the outskirts—a stretch of strip malls and big-box stores like Barnes and Noble, Toys "R" Us, and Home Depot—in a small office on the second floor of a nondescript office building.

Once one passes the suites of lawyers’ offices and insurance companies and goes inside the second floor office, the victory center does have the aura of a typical campaign HQ—piles of yard signs discarded against the walls, paper strewn about, and a handful of young volunteers bustling around. One of them is Kevin Crosswhite, the young Racine field director whose office—one wall plastered with Tommy Thompson signs, another with signs for Romney—I only sit in long enough to learn two things: that he’s worked out of it since the Scott Walker recall election, and that he won’t be interviewed. Crosswhite directs me to Romney's state communications director, who ignores my interview requests.

Bill Folk, who’s chaired the county GOP for the past five years, is more forthcoming. "In a normal election year we identify who our core constituents are and our main focus for them is getting out the vote,” he says. “We try to identify those that are on the fence, undecided, those truly swing voters who may go one way one year and another way another year, and try to persuade them to our side. The unique thing we have this year in Wisconsin in general, we have done a lot of the identification."

Thanks to the Walker recall, Wisconsin’s Republicans and Democrats have both remained in campaign mode since the 2010 election. That means that while Romney's ground game struggles to keep pace with Obama in much of the country, the Republicans in Wisconsin can match the Democrats’ efforts. Both sides got a jump start on grassroots organizing long before the national campaigns tuned in, and the universe of unidentified voters is far narrower than in the other swing states. "We as a state Republican Party have made millions of phone calls—and the Democrats as well—to our base, to undecideds," Folk says.

Wisconsin's liberals, by contrast, are weary. They barely had a chance to catch their breath after Walker’s win in 2010 before his union-busting proposals forced them to fire up a whole new campaign—one that ultimately lost, both at the legislature and in the recall. "We were very disappointed when Walker won the re-election," says Witt. "After all our work, it was very crushing. And I think people just said, 'Leave me alone, I can't deal with this anymore.'"

But after a month of licking wounds, she believes the looming presidential election wiped the slate clean. "I'm amazed at the energy I'm seeing now," she says. "I think in July I was really nervous thinking we would never get anyone into this campaign office again. They were not only exhausted, but disheartened. But [this election] means a lot and has rallied people.” Paul Ryan’s inclusion on the national ticket didn’t hurt, either. Democrats are extra eager to knock off the local conservative hero.

Walker's anti-union agenda has also boosted groups like Working America. In the first six months after Republicans passed Walker’s bill to strip collective-bargaining rights from public employees, Working America says it added 60,000 members in Wisconsin. The organization now counts 107,000 in Wisconsin, including 12,000 in Racine. “You don't get 200,000 people going up to the capitol and just have that dissipate,” says Peter Drummond, the director of Working America's Wisconsin chapter. “The energy is there. The passion is there. Any reports the Republicans have of a cheesehead revolution where they're taking over the state are greatly exaggerated.”

Of course, that may just be liberals trying to put a positive spin on their recent failures. "If they truly believe Scott Walker winning the recall was the best thing that happened, I would be shocked," says Folk, the Republican chairman. "They may be saying that outwardly, but trust me, if the shoe was on the other foot, I may say that to you as a reporter, but the reality is that is not the case."

Patrick Caldwell

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