LA CROSSE, Wis. — La Crosse, a college town in western Wisconsin 365 miles down the Mississippi River, is surrounded. Once the capital of a rural, Democratic voting bloc that dominated the southwestern quarter of the state, the 2016 election left La Crosse County alone, hemmed in on every side by counties that flipped red for Donald Trump.
The populist, working-class-focused remaking of the Republican Party Trump and his allies led that year saw a shift in American politics, with states like Wisconsin becoming a microcosm of those changes. The “Paul Ryan wing” of the state GOP, based in the once-safely Republican Milwaukee suburbs, has felt a tightening in the polls driven by defections from college-educated women. At the same time, large swathes of western Wisconsin made up for the loss, delivering the Badger State to the GOP for the first time since Ronald Reagan’s re-election.
La Crosse is among the most bustling places we’ve been so far, including much larger cities like Milwaukee and Green Bay. There’s only one hotel room left in town on a Saturday night, and at the downtown Charmant Hotel, the bar’s full, the dining room’s full, there’s a two-hour wait for the roof-deck bar, and a wedding is underway in a private ballroom downstairs.
A few blocks up the road, grimy college bars, taverns, and pool halls pump the latest hits while swarms of young adults (as well as teenagers sporting the latest in fake ID technology) try to get into the more inexplicably popular dives. This is the scene despite an order from Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers limiting restaurant and bar capacity to 25 percent (on Wednesday, a judge temporarily blocked the order). Enforcement of the governor’s order seemed to be uneven, at best, with some establishments going so far as to request masks while sitting in your bar seat, and a few counting capacity in good faith.
Directly across from one of the sparsely populated mask-mandate bars, a woman in the townie bar Thrunie’s confidently approaches, looks us up and down, and asks “Trump?” while holding up her hand for a fist-bump of agreement. We laugh and ask her why she assumes so. “Because you look like Americans.”
This is a county that went for Hillary by nearly 10 points in 2016 — not surprising, with three colleges in town — but this woman’s pro-Trump sentiment isn’t uncommon here (the group she’s with at the bar proceeds to give fist-bumps all around for Trump), and the immediately apparent town-and-gown rivalry cleanly splits on politics as well.
Juneau County an hour to the east is just the kind of place that switched to vote for the president. While President Barack Obama won 53 to 46 in 2012, it swung 33 points four years later, awarding Trump a 61 to 35 victory.
We drove out to catch the tail end of an all-terrain vehicle Trump parade on Castle Rock Lake, where hundreds of Trump supporters showed up with fantastically decorated ATVs draped in flags and signage, some of it official campaign gear but much of it homemade.
The parade ended at the sprawling Shipwreck Bay bar, where young and old cracked beers, lit grills, and traded laughs in the mid-afternoon sun. You wouldn’t believe this is the type of place to go Democrat. But then, you can’t imagine anyone holding an ATV rally bedecked in Romney flags and pop art, either.
True to the feeling, most of the attendees weren’t involved in politics before Trump came along, organizer Tina Crawford tells us. She voted for Obama in 2008, but things have changed, including the priorities of both political parties.
Earlier in the summer, Crawford and her friends organized one of the boat parades sweeping the country. “It was a crappy day, but the turnout was still beautiful. People, they’re afraid to come out and say anything. A lot of them own businesses, they don’t want to state where they are because they don’t want to lose business. And so … we just put out our flags, Trump flags, everything, and we put them out on the water and we grilled out and just had an excellent, excellent time.”
So why not an ATV parade? “They went crazy for it,” she beams, telling how a few friends had pitched her on the idea and the following responses she’d heard. “It just blew up.”
But wasn’t this a Democratic area? “I don’t believe that now,” she says. “I don’t believe that now at all. … Many of our friends have no doubts. We have our minds made up, we know who’s going to be there [for us].”
Neighboring Adams, Sauk, and Vernon counties likewise swung from Obama in 2012 to Trump in 2016. Monroe County, which sits between Juneau and La Crosse, went for Romney by less than 1 percent; Trump won it by 22 points.
Tony Kurtz, the state assemblyman for this district, is emblematic of the shift. A 20-year Army helicopter pilot, he ran unsuccessfully for Congress in 2014, but won a seat in the State Assembly in 2018, giving him an idea of what’s changed on the ground.
“More blue-collar folks, mmhm,” he tells us, reflecting what went differently. “And I give credit to Donald Trump for doing that, I truly do, and I think he’s reached out to that union vote.” Giving an example of the shift, he recalls a Farmers Union conference he went to shortly after the 2016 election, and how the union president “had to be careful what he said.”
“I think for those Farmers Union guys, they were interested in [Trump] renegotiating those trade deals,” Kurtz says. “I think that resonated with people and I think that still resonates today, because he didn’t just talk about it, he actually did it.”
That doesn’t mean Kurtz and others in western Wisconsin are immune to the political challenges facing his colleagues to the east — and the Trump campaign nationally.
“I’ve had quite a few women of all ages — I mean, I’ve had a 30-year-old firefighter, I had a 65-year-old retiree — who said, ‘I’m going to vote for you, but I’m not going to vote for Donald Trump.’ And then I’ve had some women say, ‘I’m going to vote straight Democrat.’ So, I’ve seen that, even in this district, but I’ve also seen, like a lady I talked to yesterday who said, ‘I did not vote for Donald Trump in 2016, but I will be voting for him this time.’ So I see that dynamic as well.”
“If Donald Trump loses this election, it will be on Donald Trump,” Kurtz says.