On the ground in Wisconsin: Trump’s team goes door-to-door while Democrats stay virtual amid the coronavirus

Tribune Content Agency

WAUKESHA, Wis. — Craig Black likes to refer to himself as a “born-again Republican,” a man who was “liberal for a long time” but finally saw the political light a few years back.

He converted in time to become a fervent supporter of President Donald Trump, a devotion that included celebrating the reelection-seeking Republican’s 74th birthday recently by knocking on doors for the Trump campaign in suburban Milwaukee.

“This is a crucial election. It’s about our freedoms and our liberties, and that’s why I’m volunteering any spare time I get,” said Black, a 73-year-old pharmacy driver and retired nurse who shrugged off any concerns about campaigning amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. “I don’t like all of Trump’s tweets. He can be very rough, but the bottom line is he loves this country and wants what’s best for this country. I don’t think the Democrats do.”

Black’s morning of door knocking represents a new phase of campaigning in critical 2020 swing states, as Trump and Republicans have fully embraced a return to in-person, grassroots organizing while the presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden and his campaign have not, citing health risks to campaign staffers, volunteers and voters.

Whether the campaigning takes place on front porches and in living rooms or in Google Hangouts and on Zoom chats, the Republican and Democratic parties in the key Midwestern swing states of Wisconsin and Michigan can point to a far more organized, better funded and larger campaign ground game operations than they had four years ago. That means the work to engage and identify potential supporters has started earlier and on a larger scale than four years ago, officials with both parties said.

For Republicans, the pace of getting back out on the campaign trail amid the pandemic has been set by the candidate himself.

Trump held a highly anticipated rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma, on Saturday night that drew far less than the arena’s 19,000-seat capacity, despite the campaign touting that it had received more than 1 million RSVPs for the event. Instead, almost all of the arena’s upper deck remained empty, plenty of space remained on the floor and an outdoor overflow event in the parking lot where Trump and Vice President Mike Pence were scheduled to speak was canceled.

The several thousand who did attend were asked to sign a waiver that absolves Trump’s campaign of any legal responsibility should they fall ill. The rally, which did not allow for social distancing and featured few people wearing face coverings, ran counter to the public guidance from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that urges against such gatherings.

The event was held against the wishes of local public health officials and came as some states and cities — Tulsa included — in the South and West are experiencing new highs in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations. Not long before the president took the stage, the Trump campaign announced that six staff members helping set up for the Tulsa rally had tested positive for the coronavirus. Trump’s campaign announced Monday that two more staffers working in Tulsa tested positive.

“I just want to thank all of you. You are warriors,” Trump said to his supporters at the beginning of a 100-minute speech Saturday night, before casting blame on news coverage for raising health concerns about the rally. “I’ve been watching the fake news for weeks now and everything is negative. ‘Don’t go. Don’t come. Don’t do anything. I’ve never seen anything like it. You are warriors. Thank you.”

Trump’s push to resume in-person campaign operations comes as the latest polls show him trailing — in some cases badly — in all of the key battleground states, including Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Florida, North Carolina and Arizona. Recent surveys also show him in tight races in states that were expected to be safe territory for Trump, including Iowa, Ohio and Texas.

Whether it is knocking on doors in Waukesha or packing thousands into a campaign rally in Oklahoma, Trump’s return to campaigning as normal is needlessly endangering the health and lives of Americans, said Democratic Party of Wisconsin Chairman Ben Wikler.

“It is just nonnegotiable for us that we’re going to keep our volunteers and our voters in our community safe, and if health experts think that a particular tactic could actively spread coronavirus, we’re just not going to do it,” Wikler said of the party’s decision so far not to hold in-person events, open campaign offices and commence door-to-door canvassing. “There are lots of seniors who are active party members and there are lots of doors of people who might be immunocompromised, and you don’t know when you get there. We’re not going to risk becoming a public health menace.”

Trump has waved such concerns away, urging a return to normalcy even though the pandemic continues with no immediate treatment or vaccine on the horizon. In a recent interview with The Wall Street Journal, Trump called testing for the virus “overrated” and suggested that some Americans wore masks to signal their disapproval of him and not to prevent the spread of the disease, even though the White House’s own health experts and the CDC have recommended the practice.

GOP officials and Trump have insisted it is time to get on with the business of getting the president reelected while portraying Biden and Democrats as overly cautious and in favor of draconian policies that are hurting the bottom lines of the nation’s businesses and costing people their jobs.

Mark Jefferson, chairman of the Republican Party of Wisconsin, said he would welcome Trump holding a rally in the state, though he said the location would matter as he doubts local Democratic officials in Milwaukee and Madison would be accommodating. He said the Democrats have “really overdone it with their rhetoric” on the pandemic and are not giving people credit for being able to take basic precautions.

The state party’s field workers and organizers work in partnership with Trump Victory, the Republican National Committee’s arm of the Trump campaign. Asked if Wisconsin workers are required to wear masks or practice social distancing in campaign offices and at events, Jefferson said it is up to the individual.

“We’ve heard the 6-foot rule now for weeks and weeks and weeks. Some people choose to use a mask, some people prefer not to use a mask. Fair enough. You have to make your own decisions as to whether you want to spend less time in the office if people aren’t wearing masks. Those are individual choices,” Jefferson said. “When you’re out knocking doors and you keep a safe distance from the person at the door, we just don’t see a problem, and we’re finding most of the voters don’t either.”


A little more than a week ago, the Trump campaign officially relaunched its in-person, grassroots events as part of a “national weekend of action” in celebration of the president’s birthday.

Trump Victory coordinated hundreds of events across the country, including MAGA (Make America Great Again) meetups at homes and businesses, “leadership initiative training” to teach volunteers how to mobilize their friends and neighbors, door-to-door canvassing operations and phone banking. Some of the training and meetups remained virtual.

No state in the nation had more Trump campaign events planned for that weekend than Wisconsin, where 66 were scheduled, according to a Chicago Tribune analysis on Trump Victory’s publicized gatherings. Of those 66 events, 28 remained virtual while 38 were to be held in person, including 13 door-to-door canvasses in larger cities such as Green Bay and Eau Claire and smaller towns including Sturgeon Bay and Chippewa Falls.

State and national party officials say overall the weekend was a major success. But on that Saturday in the GOP suburban stronghold of Waukesha, west of Milwaukee, the turnout was light.

Fewer than a dozen people showed up to knock on doors. None of the volunteers or campaign workers in the small, strip mall office wore masks or practiced social distancing. “Most of us have been around each other a lot anyway,” a field organizer explained.

Visitors to the office are greeted by a cardboard cutout of Trump and tables with campaign merchandise spread out, from T-shirts and buttons to the popular “Trump 2020! Keep America Great” flags. Outside, signs in the windows and placed in the grass by a nearby highway read, “Trump Pence Keep America Great!” and “OPEN WISCONSIN NOW.”

The latter sign is outdated.

Wisconsin has been without any statewide COVID-19 restrictions for more than a month, since Republican legislative leaders challenged Democratic Gov. Tony Evers’ stay-at-home order before the Wisconsin Supreme Court, whose conservative majority tossed it out.

Black, the 73-year-old retired nurse who knocked on doors, said he believed Democrats had greatly exaggerated the dangers of COVID-19 and said he’s heard from a lot of his neighbors in nearby New Berlin who are upset with Evers over his stay-at-home order. Black said that he brings up the issue while knocking on doors, but that the most important issue to him remains gun rights.

Black said he used to be a Democrat but grew increasingly disenchanted as the party became more “radical,” and said his work as a nurse in Milwaukee showed him up close how the party had failed the city’s schools and neighborhoods.

“Trump turned the economy around. He fights against the liberal media, and it’s just a media jihad against him,” Black said. “He will not back down.”

Before Black left the campaign office, he asked party organizers whether he should wear a mask while knocking on doors. It’s recommended, he was told, but not required.

Alana, a 15-year-old who lives in nearby Brookfield and has previously volunteered for Republican campaigns, said she was excited to go canvass because it’s easier to persuade people in person than calling or texting from a cellphone.

“There’s something about looking somebody in the eyes and showing them I’m here to help my country,” she said, noting that “border security” is the most important issue to her. “I’m not just someone behind the screen, I’m a human being that’s coming to tell you what I think is right.”

On the other side of the small, windowless conference room in the office, Josh Parr helped develop the walking lists for the canvassers. The 27-year-old, who recently ran unsuccessfully for state representative, used the Campaign Sidekick app to pull lists of 60 to 80 voters for each volunteer. The canvassers then use the mobile app, which pulls information from Trump Victory’s vast data reservoir, to log their efforts in the field as they visit each home on the list.

“Right now, we’re trying to target swing voters,” Parr explained. “We’re looking for either Democrats who could go Trump or conservatives who were a ‘never Trumper.’”

Jefferson, the executive director of the Wisconsin GOP, said people in the state have gotten more comfortable getting out in public and that early canvassing efforts have gone well.

“The response has been encouraging. We haven’t run into much resistance,” he said. “The suburban areas were very good, and the rural communities really were no problem at all. People are really eager to get out and talk to people.”


It has been a different story so far in Michigan, where Trump Victory’s event list for the same weekend of action showed just a single virtual leadership event planned in Kalamazoo.

Trump Victory, the Trump campaign and the Michigan GOP declined or did not respond to repeated requests to interview campaign officials in the state. The campaign planned a more robust mix of in-person and virtual events in other swing states, including 49 in Pennsylvania, 27 in Arizona and 26 in North Carolina.

Michigan was among the nation’s hardest-hit states by COVID-19, with more than 66,000 cases and more than 6,000 deaths as the Detroit region endured particularly high caseloads. Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, whom Republicans have attacked for instituting some of the nation’s strictest restrictions and a gradual reopening of the state, just recently allowed for the reopening of many businesses such as barbershops and nail salons.

Lavora Barnes, the Michigan Democratic Party chairwoman, said she has been very impressed with how quickly the party’s organizers and volunteers switched to all-virtual organizing with phone calls, text messages, virtual house parties and more. Barnes said the party has just started contemplating what a return to in-person organizing could look like.

“We are having deep conversations inside the party here on if and how we will canvass and whether or not voters are ready for us to show up at their doors in masks and gloves and socially distancing on their porches,” Barnes said. “We’ve got a couple of local groups who are excited to get started and are ready for us to test it out, but I’m just not there yet.”

Barnes said the party will continue to follow public health guidelines and Whitmer’s lead. She said she couldn’t envision a scenario in which Democrats would hold an event in Michigan like Trump’s weekend rally in Tulsa.

Democrats don’t appear to have developed bench marks or thresholds for when the party would be comfortable resuming in-person canvassing or events. Biden gradually has started appearing in public more often, including an event last Wednesday in Darby, Pennsylvania. where he gave a speech criticizing Trump’s handling of the pandemic before a select group of 20 people seated in chairs with 6-foot white circles marked around them to ensure social distancing.

Still, the Biden campaign has not offered any protocols for when and how in-person campaigning might resume. Wikler, the Wisconsin Democratic Party chairman, said his party had not decided under what conditions canvassing might be acceptable.

“Just because you can doesn’t mean you should,” Wikler said, in a nod to the fact that the state has no public health restrictions because of the Republican lawsuit. “If we do it, it will be in a very careful and more intentional way than the GOP’s damn the torpedoes approach to the coronavirus.”

In Michigan, Barnes said the party is paying leases on campaign offices it still isn’t using because of the virus. She didn’t offer any overall guidelines, but said when the party does move back to in-person campaign work it will be slowly, “community by community” to find out Michiganders’ comfort levels.

In the meantime, the party will continue its virtual outreach, but Barnes acknowledged there is no substitute for the real thing.

“There is nothing better than that face-to-face conversation, where you can talk about the issues, answer their questions and provide them with information about why it’s important to vote for Democrats,” she said. “Being face-to-face with that voter, there’s nothing like it.”


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