Empower Wisconsin | Oct. 16, 2020
By Chris Bedford and John Daniel Davidson, The Federalist
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.