Republicans, like the Democrats last week, lean into Wisconsin's battleground status

Experts see parallels between the two conventions, but say they're not sure how the presence of regular Wisconsinites will appeal to voters come November.

U.S. Vice President Mike Pence delivers his acceptance speech as the 2020 Republican vice presidential nominee during an event of the 2020 Republican National Convention held at Fort McHenry in Baltimore, Maryland, Wednesday, Aug. 26. Former Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker officially nominated Pence on Monday. (REUTERS / Jonathan Ernst)

This week's Republican National Convention, just like its Democratic counterpart last week, has focused the spotlight on several speakers from Wisconsin, a key battleground state that both parties say could decide the November election.

Last week's Democratic National Convention, which was anchored in Milwaukee yet took place nearly entirely online, and this week's part online, part in-person RNC in North Carolina and Washington, D.C., have showcased how both parties plan to win both nationwide and in Wisconsin, where Donald Trump defeated Hillary Clinton by less than 23,000 votes in 2016.

"When I was listening to Barack and Michelle Obama, I really felt they were talking to people in Wisconsin who lean in the Democratic Party's direction. ... I think for the Democrats it's the 'leave nothing to chance' election," said Anthony Chergosky, a UW-La Crosse assistant professor of political science.

After the first two nights of the RNC, Chergosky said the Republican strategy appears much more focused on exciting Trump's base, including rural Wisconsinites.

"To me that really brought to mind the dominance of Donald Trump in the rural areas of Wisconsin, particularly northern Wisconsin, and how he really needs to have a strong showing in rural Wisconsin in order to carry this state," Chergosky said.


The DNC included speeches by Gov. Tony Evers; U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin, of Madison; U.S. Rep. Gwen Moore, of Milwaukee; and Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett. The only elected politician from Wisconsin to appear at the RNC has been former Gov. Scott Walker, who on Monday officially nominated Vice President Mike Pence. Walker said he was invited to speak by Pence, though he did not appear in the prime-time broadcast.

Another notable difference between the two conventions is that while the RNC on Tuesday included a speech from Democratic Georgia state Rep. Vernon Jones, the DNC's lineup included a list of prominent Joe Biden-supporting Republicans, ranging from former Ohio Gov. John Kasich to former Secretary of State Colin Powell.

UW-Madison journalism professor Mike Wagner said Democrats appear to be trying to win back some of those who voted for Barack Obama in 2012 but shifted to Trump in 2016. Trump's narrow Wisconsin victory four years ago was aided by the fact that Clinton received nearly a quarter-million fewer votes than Obama did four years earlier.

"I think it's really hard to say in those states which strategy is going to be best," Wagner said. "There's a small but important number of voters in crucial swing states who voted for Barack Obama and Donald Trump."

Wisconsin's presence

Another difference between the conventions was that unlike the DNC, the speaker list came together late for the Republicans. When the list was announced Sunday, the state Republican Party was unable to confirm which speakers hailed from Wisconsin, something party officials attributed to a "communication mix-up."

While each party's focus may be different, both conventions have boasted multiple speakers from Wisconsin, likely due to the political focus on the battleground state.

The list of RNC speakers included Cris Peterson, who operates a dairy farm near Grantsburg and is a member of the UW Board of Regents. Speaking from Washington, D.C., on Tuesday, Peterson praised Trump's trade policies, which she said have helped bring the state out of a period of low milk prices.

"This is the only president in my lifetime that has ever talked about agriculture and farming," Peterson said in an interview Wednesday. "He is recognizing what an important part we are of this country."


Trump's trade policies have not drawn praise from all Wisconsin farmers, however, as the state earlier this year continued to lead the nation in farm bankruptcies.

Also on Tuesday, Madison mother Sarah Hughes and her son Jack spoke about their experience with the state's private school voucher program.

"I think that's been kind of the big talk of Republican circles, just how much Wisconsin is playing a role," state GOP chairman Andrew Hitt said. "I think those speakers really speak to a broad swath of Wisconsinites and that's why it's so impactful."

But UW's Wagner said he's not convinced that simply having more Wisconsin speakers translates into more votes.

"Both conventions I think have had more people who don't have political credentials giving speeches than maybe is typical, but I don't think there is a voter in Manitowoc sitting around tallying up how many regular people from Wisconsin got to talk at each convention and then making their voting decision for president based upon the difference," Wagner said.

John Peterson, owner and chief executive of metal fabricator Schuette Metals in Rothschild and a board member for the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp., also spoke during the RNC on Tuesday.

"My phone blew up," Peterson said, adding that much of the feedback he received following the speech was positive. "I think there's a big silent majority out there that feels the same way."

The pandemic

The DNC, which once projected it could draw more than 50,000 visitors to Milwaukee, ultimately took place almost entirely online, with Biden participating from Delaware, due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.


The RNC bounced from Charlotte, North Carolina, to Jacksonville, Florida, back to Charlotte in response to the coronavirus, but still held some of its business in person. Hitt said he experienced multiple public health measures at the short event, including COVID-19 tests and daily symptom questionnaires.

On Tuesday night, dozens gathered at the White House Rose Garden for first lady Melania Trump's speech. The audience was socially distanced, but many were not wearing masks. Unlike Biden, Trump is also expected to address an audience when he accepts the nomination Thursday.

"It's just absolutely stunning," state Sen. Chris Larson, D-Milwaukee, said Wednesday. "The Democratic convention took place in reality, the Republican one is taking place in a fantasy land where the pandemic either never happened or is over."


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