WAUKESHA, Wis.—Four years ago, Donald Trump delivered a surprise electoral victory in Wisconsin, becoming the first Republican presidential candidate to carry the state in nearly three decades.
Yet behind the narrow victory was a nagging problem for Trump in the state’s suburbs: He underperformed among voters there who usually show great support for Republican candidates. How these voters evaluate Trump’s performance in office four years later will partly determine if he can carry this key battleground state again.
“If we win Wisconsin, we win the whole ballgame,” Trump said at a campaign rally there on Oct. 17. He has visited the state six times this year, while Democratic nominee Joe Biden has paid only one visit, according to a tally by the Wisconsin State Journal.
Trump has also made appeals to suburban women recently, urging them to vote for him to keep their neighborhoods safe.
The Epoch Times spoke with traditionally Republican-leaning suburban voters, many of them women, in the counties of Waukesha, Milwaukee, and Dane, places where the Republican vote dropped in 2016.
Some said Trump’s accomplishments overshadow his weaknesses, and they will vote for him. Others are turned off by his leadership style and favor Biden.
Christine Bauman, who lives in Waukesha, voted for Trump in 2016—but reluctantly. This year, however, she said she will vote for him wholeheartedly.
She told The Epoch Times she has been “pleasantly surprised” by Trump’s accomplishments.
“Would I want to sit with him and have a beer? Would I want to have him be my best friend? Probably not. But I do like his policies,” she said. “I’m not voting on personality. I’m voting on policy and are you doing what you say you’re going to do.”
Bauman said she is Christian and pro-life, and favors less government. She’s fiscally conservative and most passionate on the issue of school choice (which seeks to expand alternatives to traditional public schools). She considers herself more socially liberal than the average Republican.
A Republican’s 1st Democratic Vote
Susan Vergeront, 75, of Waunakee in Dane County, has long been a staunch Republican. But she will cast her first vote for a Democratic presidential candidate this year. In 2016, she supported neither Trump nor Hillary Clinton, but voted instead for Libertarian Party candidate Gary Johnson.
“I don’t call Trump a Republican,” she told The Epoch Times. His administration “stole my party,” she said.
Vergeront spoke of the “Grand Old Party” and its spirit of compromise and public service. She was a Republican state legislator in the 1980s and ’90s, and worked with Democratic colleagues under Gov. Tommy Thompson to reform the state’s welfare system.
“I love our country, and I’ve been a student of American history in general. It just took me totally by surprise that the majority of the electors in this country thought that it was OK to be gross, to lie, to cheat, to be mean-spirited, as long as [Trump] does what he promised to do,” Vergeront said.
She said Trump’s policies—such as easing environmental and labor regulations—have disportionately benefited the wealthy over average Americans.
“I’m a Republican that strongly believes in capitalism, but I also believe it needs checks. Lifting regulations that allow companies to make megabucks is wrong,” Vergeront said. “Capitalism works in America only because it’s controlled capitalism. [With] pure capitalism, we’ll have an oligarchy.
“I do have faith in Biden as a centrist. He’ll change the tone and bring the country back together.”
‘Looking at the Job Performance’
Kris Owens, who shared a similar view to Bauman, said she reluctantly voted for Trump in 2016, but has since warmed up to him.
“I believe in the policies that he has promised and that he has kept,” Owens, a 52-year-old commercial insurance specialist in Pewaukee, told The Epoch Times. “Yes, his tweets are harsh. They make me cringe, too. But I’m looking at the job performance.
“If I had to go into surgery, and I know that somebody had a great reputation as a surgeon and a great success rate, but maybe he was a little harsh on how he spoke to the nurses, and another doctor who was nice to all nurses, but his surgery wasn’t as great—who would I want to do that surgery on me?”
Owens likes how Trump expanded veteran access to quality health care providers outside the Department of Veteran Affairs’ medical system. Wisconsin’s VA hospital, dubbed “Candy Land” because of runaway surge in opiate prescriptions, was under federal investigation in 2015 after a Marine Corps veteran died of an overdose in its psychiatric ward.
Owens identifies as a conservative. In local elections, she said she sometimes votes for Democratic candidates, but for national tickets, she generally votes Republican.
Both Bauman and Owens live in Waukesha County, which, together with Ozaukee County and Washington County, are collectively known as the WOW counties. They are considered the three most Republican counties in Wisconsin.
For decades, the WOW counties have delivered huge margins for Republican candidates at the local, state, and national levels—but not for Trump in 2016.
Former Republican Gov. Scott Walker won the WOW counties by an average of 45 points in three campaigns. Even when he lost his bid for a third term in 2018, he still carried those counties by 35 points.
Mitt Romney, the unsuccessful Republican presidential candidate in 2012, carried the WOW counties by 35 points.
In 2016, Trump carried the WOW counties by 28 points. He won the state even with the decline in support due to historically high margins in his favor in rural regions and a drop in Democratic voter turnout in urban areas.
In 2016, Trump won Wisconsin by 22,748 votes. A return to the standard Republican performance in the WOW counties this year could boost his total by 20,000 to 30,000 votes, according to an analysis by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
Valerie Houk, a volunteer for the Republican Party of Waukesha County for more than 20 years, told The Epoch Times the excitement for Trump is much higher now than 2016. This year, the number of volunteers has increased by roughly 60 to 70 percent compared to the last election, she said.
In 2016, more than 60 percent of Waukesha Republican voters, including Bauman and Owens, favored Ted Cruz in the primary. Only about 20 percent favored Trump in the primary, and Houk was one of them.
“[In 2016], they didn’t believe him. And he surpassed everything that they thought,” Houk said. “Now, they want to vote for him.”
The Democratic Party of Waukesha County didn’t immediately respond to requests by The Epoch Times for comment.
Seeking Safety Amid Unrest
Bauman said the recent riots and social unrest have nudged some of her “middle-of-the-road” female friends in Waukesha County toward Trump.
“They don’t like this burning and looting,” Bauman said. “Most women I know want a safe community. If you have a family, you’re like a mama bear; you’re protective of your family and your children.”
Some told Bauman that they appreciate how Trump upholds law and order amid social unrest.
“I’ll hold my nose, and I’ll vote for him,” one friend told her.
Owens said the most important issue for her this election is safety. It is also an issue that weighs heavily on many of her friends’ minds in Waukesha County, she said.
Earlier this year, riots broke out in Kenosha, about an hour’s drive from the city of Waukesha, after police officer Rusten Sheskey shot a black man named Jacob Blake in the back several times during an arrest.
“When something like this can happen in a city like Kenosha, that is not a major city like Chicago or Minneapolis or Seattle, this is hitting close to home,” Owens said.
She didn’t like the Democratic Party’s stance on the safety issue. “They never mentioned the riots and violence that were occurring during the Democratic National Convention.”
She also fears the socialist wing of the Democratic Party might control Biden’s agenda.
“I really don’t think Vice President Biden could run this country, and I don’t think they are going to have him run the county,” she said.
Another Republican Turns to Biden
“The nation is in perhaps a greater division than we saw in the 1960s, and it’s largely due to the words and examples set by Donald Trump. I believe a president leads by his words and example,” Craig Peterson, of River Hills in Milwaukee County, told The Epoch Times.
Peterson, who described himself as a lifelong Republican, has 40 years of experience in Wisconsin politics. He worked at the Wisconsin State Capitol and managed multiple statewide campaigns for Republican candidates. He’s the CEO and president of Zigman Joseph PR, one of Wisconsin’s oldest public relations firms.
“Trump is anti-intellectualism, and that is not symbolic of the Republican Party,” he said. “When you think of players [such] as Jack Kemp and Ronald Reagan, they were politicians who believed in new ideas and the power of intellectualism.”
Peterson, who didn’t vote in 2016, says he plans to vote for Biden. Like Vergeront, it will be his first time voting for a Democratic presidential candidate.
His wife, also a lifelong Republican, will vote for Biden, too. Peterson said his wife was turned off by Trump’s “constant lying, bullying, how he has named colleagues, and how he treats people.”
Peterson has lived in River Hills, a small upscale city just north of Milwaukee, for the past 25 years. While the city has been a Republican stronghold for decades, Peterson says “it’s fascinating [that] now when you drive down the street, what you see are Biden’s yard signs.”