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One voted Biden. One picked Trump. It’s a tale of two counties in pivotal Wisconsin

Located less than an hour outside Madison, Wis., Columbia County has both city commuters and people in more rural, small towns. Portage, with a population of around 10,000, is the largest town in the county.

Located less than an hour outside Madison, Wis., Columbia County has both city commuters and people in more rural, small towns. Portage, with a population of around 10,000, is the largest town in the county.
Located less than an hour outside Madison, Wis., Columbia County has both city commuters and people in more rural, small towns. Portage, with a population of around 10,000, is the largest town in the county. (Jeongyoon Han/NPR)

On a recent Tuesday morning in Portage, Wis., Sharon Wade tended to her craft and antique furnishing shop. Standing in front of a wall lined with color-coded paints, she helped a friend find the correct tools to spruce up an old dresser.

“You’re going to be fine, Sandy! I promise you,” Wade laughed, as she unwrapped a new paintbrush. “You know you can call me if you need to.”

Her store sits within Columbia County, a county less than an hour outside of Madison. Despite some loyal customers, Wade said business has slowed over the past year.

“It’s been difficult to see people come in, that were regulars before that bought, and now they just come in to look,” she said, addressing rising prices in town. “I don’t blame them, you get in that situation where you have to buy things that you need, not necessarily what you want.”

Protecting her business drives her vote. After supporting former President Barack Obama in both 2008 and 2012, she then backed former President Donald Trump twice in 2016 and 2020. Now, she plans to vote for President Biden, arguing Trump’s legal woes are a deal breaker for her.

Sharon Wade runs a store in downtown Portage, Wis., that specializes in antique and vintage furnishings, and handcrafted gifts.
Sharon Wade runs a store in downtown Portage, Wis., that specializes in antique and vintage furnishings, and handcrafted gifts. (Jeongyoon Han/NPR)

“I just feel like there’s so much going on with his life that how can he focus on our country,” she said. “We need someone who’s going to be dedicated to what’s happening for us.”

Wade’s voting history mirrors Columbia County — known as a pivot county — one of several in the state that voted twice for Obama and then flipped to Trump in 2016.

In 2020, Trump won Columbia by just under two percentage points. But in neighboring Sauk County, he lost by about the same margin.

Both counties — made up of midsize towns and rural areas outside the capital city — may be potential indicators of which candidate could win the state this year. But less than six months out, many voters remain divided and polarized, leaving little room for outliers to make up their minds.

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Jen Gamblethomas sat in a coffee shop in Baraboo, the largest town in Sauk County.

“I think that everybody that I know knows who they’re voting for,” said Gamblethomas, a Democrat who works with a local veterinarian in town.

“People have solidified what their values are and what they’d like to see happen,” she added. “I think everybody’s holding true to where they stand.”

Mark Kolloway sat a few tables away from Gamblethomas. The real estate investor supports Trump and actually moved from Illinois to Wisconsin in part because of the split nature of the state.

“I like the fairness of it,” he said. “At least here, it’s a flip of a coin.”

A statewide ground game

Both the Biden and Trump teams are working alongside the statewide parties to put staff on the ground in Wisconsin. But in a state that Biden won by just under 21,000 votes four years ago and Trump carried in 2016 by nearly the same margin, its political nature is not lost on either party.

“Wisconsin is the land of the nail-biter,” explained Ben Wikler, the chair of the state’s Democratic Party.

Wikler has seen the state through a series of major wins, including Biden’s victory in 2020. And he’s keen on delivering Biden’s message this year with what he’s calling “surround sound,” with both in-person and online outreach.

“Regardless of who’s going to win in a county and by how much, the real question is how many voters are out there that we have not connected with yet,” he said. “That is work that we can only really do by showing up and talking to people and meeting them where they are and listening to them. And you have to do that far out from Election Day.”

Brian Schimming, the chair of the Wisconsin Republican Party, said pivot counties like Columbia and Sauk are his party’s targets this year. Like Democrats, he’s keen on reaching out to new and nonvoters who could make a difference in a competitive county and state. That said, first-time voters in Wisconsin overwhelmingly voted for Biden four years ago — aligning with national trends.

“It’s a major — if not the major opportunity for us,” he explained. “If I can get them to vote early, that is also good. So we’re trying some things around here that might not necessarily be expected of Republicans.”

Schimming’s emphasis on early voting is a shift that the RNC has taken over the past year, a notable move given Trump’s previous comments disparaging it, though Trump has recently pivoted on the subject and begun promoting early voting on social media.

“If I’m able to go talk … five, eight, 10% of Republicans in this state [into] voting early — like up to two weeks early,” Schimming explained, “I can then take the resources I save because I got those people to go vote and spend them on those swing voters or the new voters.”

Local organizers are pushing the issues

A plastic Christmas tree standing at least 10 feet tall and decked out with red, white and blue ornaments graces the front entrance of a repurposed bank in Rock Springs, Wis., population 300. The walls are lined with campaign posters, and a sign reading “God Bless America” is hung on the original, heavy bank vault door.

The bank serves as the headquarters for the Republican Party of Sauk County, which has made it a tradition to gather every Thursday at 9 a.m. for coffee.

A family member of the Republican Party of Sauk County offered up the refurbished bank in Rock Springs to serve as the group's headquarters.
A family member of the Republican Party of Sauk County offered up the refurbished bank in Rock Springs to serve as the group’s headquarters. (Jeongyoon Han/NPR)

“Sauk County is a national bellwether,” said County Chair Jerry Helmer, as a dozen people sat around tables in the bank. “It’s not red, it’s not blue, it’s purple.”

Sauk has been somewhat of a bellwether since 2008, correctly voting for the winning presidential candidate since President Obama’s first run.

“I see that the Republicans are more excited and more wound up than I have ever seen them,” he added.

Members of the group said the election is in part a referendum on Biden’s policies, notably his handling of issues like immigration and the economy, topics the county party brings up with voters.

“People now have seen the alternative. They’ve seen what Biden has done. They’ve seen what the Democrats are doing. They’ve seen the impact,” said member Gordon Statz.

“To me, Joe Biden is doing more campaigning for Trump than Trump is for himself,” he added.

Gordon Statz, a retired quality manager at an automotive company, is the treasurer of the Republican Party of Sauk County. He said he feels optimistic about former President Trump's chances this fall.
Gordon Statz, a retired quality manager at an automotive company, is the treasurer of the Republican Party of Sauk County. He said he feels optimistic about former President Trump’s chances this fall. (Jeongyoon Han/NPR)

Democrats in the county say they too know the stakes. When organizer Judy Brey goes out canvassing, she hears many of the same issues from voters that the Republican organizers also raised.

“The border and immigration and cost of living. Over and over and over again,” she said, sipping coffee around a table with a few members of the Sauk County Democrats. “They say our president is doing nothing about it. I’m not going to vote for him.”

“But that’s what our job is,” Susan Knower, the chair of the group, cut in. “Those low-information voters, those are the ones that we have to make sure that we’re contacting,” she added.

The group said they’re hoping to engage with voters over a handful of top issues, notably protecting access to abortion — a topic that Knower argued can bring in more women and younger voters.

Democrats have been successful in highlighting the issue in recent off-year elections. Just last spring Wisconsin voters turned out in record numbers for a state supreme court race where safeguarding reproductive rights was a top priority of the winning candidate.

That said, Knower is worried about low levels of Democratic enthusiasm. Though she doesn’t expect large swaths of Sauk voters to flip to Trump, she’s concerned that Biden’s record has not resonated with his potential supporters.

Susan Knower, the chair of the Democratic Party of Sauk County, said the party needs to engage with voters around protecting abortion access and make a concerted effort to highlight President Biden's policy wins.
Susan Knower, the chair of the Democratic Party of Sauk County, said the party needs to engage with voters around protecting abortion access and make a concerted effort to highlight President Biden’s policy wins. (Jeongyoon Han/NPR)

“People don’t know that,” she explained, pointing to the president’s infrastructure bill and his work capping drug prices.

“Also if you’re not thrilled about Biden, you will be way less thrilled about another Trump administration,” she added. “And so you cannot sit home. And that’s got to be our message.”

Uncertain voters in an uncertain county

Politics was not on Marissa Flick’s mind while she ate lunch with her family at a diner in Baraboo. Sitting there with her 18-month-old son, she laughed off the idea of another Biden-Trump rematch.

“I’m not voting for that reason alone,” Flick said, who also works as a caretaker for her sister. “I feel like there shouldn’t be 80-year-old men running our country.”

Flick explained her mother advised her to vote for Biden in the 2020 race. This time, despite taking issue with some of Trump’s rhetoric, particularly on immigration, she feels disconnected from the whole race.

“I don’t really know what to look for,” she said. “Every time you see a video of someone, they’re always just bashing the other side, not saying … what they’re going to do to make the country better.”

The door isn’t fully closed, Flick said, explaining if someone provided her with good enough reasons, she would consider backing Biden again.

Kathleen Jahn, an artist in Portage who specializes in watercolor and pastel painting, said she's not sure who she'll vote for this election cycle.
Kathleen Jahn, an artist in Portage who specializes in watercolor and pastel painting, said she’s not sure who she’ll vote for this election cycle. (Jeongyoon Han/NPR)

Back in Columbia County, local artist Kathleen Jahn is manning an art market in downtown Portage.

“Nobody’s grabbing my heart,” she said, standing near her section of the store which featured knitted items and framed watercolor paintings.

Despite supporting some of Trump’s policies, Jahn doesn’t trust him anymore. At the same time, she isn’t fully sold on Biden.

“He’s got a lot of good ideas. And he wants to help a lot of the people. But I think sometimes he’s not doing it in the correct way,” she said.

As a swing voter in a swing county in a swing state, she has a rule.

“I personally, when I get together with people, say we’re here to enjoy ourselves. We will not talk about politics or religion,” she explained, letting out a laugh as she added, “Sorry!”

Transcript:

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

We think of ourselves as so divided as a country, so divided by place, red states, blue states, but there are places that change. One of them is Wisconsin, which has gone both ways in recent years, and in Wisconsin are some pivot counties. These are places that voted for former President Obama a couple of times and then flipped to former President Trump in 2016. In the suburbs of Madison, two of those counties happened to neighbor each other and one stuck with Trump in 2020 while one bounced back to Biden. NPR’s Elena Moore went to both.

ELENA MOORE, BYLINE: On a recent Tuesday morning in Portage, Wis., Sharon Wade was helping her friend Sandra with a new project – sprucing up her old dresser.

SHARON WADE: You’re going to be fine, Sandy. I promise you. You know you can call me if you need.

SANDRA: Spritzer, water…

MOORE: Wade runs a craft and antique furnishing store downtown. She says recently, business has been slow.

WADE: It’s been difficult to see people come in that were regulars before that bought and now they just come in to look. And I don’t blame them. You get in that situation where you have to buy things that you need, not necessarily what you want.

MOORE: He’s concerned about rising prices, and protecting her business drives her vote. In 2016 and 2020, she supported former President Donald Trump. Before that, she voted twice for former President Barack Obama. Now, she says she’s supporting President Biden, and though Wade doesn’t regret voting for Trump, his legal woes are a deal breaker.

WADE: I just feel like there’s so much going on with his life that how can he focus on our country? So I think that’s part of it for me is just we need someone who’s going to be dedicated to what’s happening for us.

MOORE: Wade’s voting history mirrors her home of Columbia County. Located less than an hour outside Madison, Columbia has both city commuters and people in more rural, small towns. It’s a place that’s gone back and forth in presidential elections, and it’s far from the only one. Nearby is Sauk County.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Large iced chocolate chi, one shot with…

MOORE: Jen Gamblethomas sits in a coffee shop in downtown Baraboo, the largest town in Sauk.

JEN GAMBLETHOMAS: I think that everybody I know knows who they’re voting for.

MOORE: With a few slightly bigger towns, the county has a similar makeup to Columbia, and it’s also incredibly politically divided. Gamblethomas, who works with a local veterinarian, is a Democrat.

GAMBLETHOMAS: People are – have solidified what their values are and what they’d like to see happen. I think everybody’s holding true to where they stand.

MOORE: Sauk and Columbia are two of over 20 counties in Wisconsin that voted for Obama twice and then flipped to Trump eight years ago. But in 2020, Sauk voted for Biden and Columbia voted for Trump, both by less than two percentage points, two of the tightest margins in Wisconsin, a state Biden narrowly won last time and that Trump won in 2016. Mark Kolloway sits a few tables away from Gamblethomas. The real estate investor says he’s a Trump supporter and actually moved from Illinois to Wisconsin in part because of the 50-50 nature of the state.

MARK KOLLOWAY: I like the fairness of it. At least here, it’s flip a coin, yeah.

MOORE: And the coin toss is consequential. In nearby Rock Springs, a town of 300 people, the Sauk County Republicans meet in a repurposed bank with walls covered in campaign posters.

JERRY HELMER: It’s not red. It’s not blue. It’s purple.

MOORE: County Chairman Jerry Helmer. The group has made a tradition of gathering for coffee once a week to talk community, and of course, politics.

HELMER: I see that the Republicans are more excited and more wound up than I have ever seen them.

GORDON STATZ: People now have seen the alternative. They’ve seen what Biden has done. They’ve seen what the Democrats are doing. They’ve seen the impact.

MOORE: That’s Sauk County Republican Gordon Statz. The group says the election is a referendum on Biden’s handling of issues like the economy and the border.

STATZ: To me, Joe Biden is doing more campaigning for Trump than Trump is for himself. He’s laying the stage for here’s what happens if you don’t elect someone that has our country’s real benefits in mind.

MOORE: But Democrats in the county say they too know the stakes.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Hello.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Hi there.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Come in, come in.

MOORE: A few members of the Sauk County Dems sip coffee in Baraboo. And when organizer Judy Brey goes out canvassing, those are the same issues voters want to talk about.

JUDY BREY: The border and immigration and cost of living, over and over and over again. They say our president is doing nothing about it. I’m not going to vote for him.

SUSAN KNOWER: But that’s what our job is, is that…

BREY: I know.

KNOWER: …Those low-information voters – those are the ones that we have to make sure that we’re contacting…

MOORE: That’s the voice of Susan Knower, the chair of the Sauk County Democrats. Knower says they’re hoping to engage with voters over issues like protecting abortion access, a topic she argues can bring in more women and young voters. So she worries less about Trump gaining ground. But…

KNOWER: My concern would be if people would just stay home, and I think that’s what we are promoting is a no vote is a vote for Trump.

MOORE: And with margins as tight as they’ve been in the last two presidential elections, staying home can also be a swing vote, and Sauk and neighboring Columbia are swing counties in a swing state, meaning campaigns are looking there for every single vote. And though so many people are already decided, some voters do remain unsure, especially because it’s another Trump-Biden rematch.

MARISSA FLICK: I am not voting for that reason alone. I feel like there shouldn’t be 80-year-old men running our country.

MOORE: Marissa Flick eats lunch with her family at a diner in Baraboo. She’s a caretaker for her sister and has an 18-month-old son. She voted for Biden last time, partially because her mom told her to. She disagrees with some of Trump’s rhetoric on immigration, but generally, she just feels disconnected from the whole race.

FLICK: I don’t really know what to look for. I feel like every time you see, like, a video of someone, they’re always just bashing the other side, not saying, like, oh, what they’re going to do to make the country better.

MOORE: She says, if someone explained more about the election, giving her good enough reasons, she’d be open to voting for Biden again. Back over in Columbia County, local artist Kathleen Jahn isn’t enthusiastic, either.

KATHLEEN JAHN: Nobody’s grabbing my heart (laughter).

MOORE: Though she says Trump had some good policies, she can’t trust him anymore. At the same time, she isn’t sold on Biden.

JAHN: He’s got a lot of good ideas, and he wants to help a lot of the people, but I think sometimes he’s not doing it in the correct way.

MOORE: And in a place where the political stakes are so high, it’s hard to be undecided. That’s why Jahn has a rule.

JAHN: I personally, when I get together with people, say we’re here to enjoy ourselves. We will not talk about politics or religion. Sorry (laughter).

MOORE: A tough ask in a swing county.

Elena Moore, NPR News.

 

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