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A look at Wisconsin's current political identity before the first Republican debate

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

The Republican Party is essentially bookending its presidential primary in Milwaukee, Wis. The first GOP debate is there this Wednesday, and Republicans plan to return to Milwaukee for their nominating convention next summer. We have a look at politics in the state from NPR political correspondent Kelsey Snell with reporting from Maayan Silver of member station WUWM in Milwaukee. Hi, Kelsey.

KELSEY SNELL, BYLINE: Hi there.

SHAPIRO: Wisconsin is a swing state, but there are several crucial swing states in any election, including this one. So why are Republicans specifically coming to Wisconsin?

SNELL: So Wisconsin has been at the center of some very critical moments in the past few elections. It used to be considered part of the blue wall, which is a term for a block of Midwestern states that reliably voted for Democrats in presidential races since the late 1980s. But if you look a little deeper, the state has always been closely divided, with Republicans winning statewide races, including governors and Senate seats, quite regularly. And then former President Trump won the state in 2016. But in the years since, Democrats have really rallied in Wisconsin. And in the interviews we did for this story, most Republican strategists acknowledge that Trump could be a drag on the party next year - that and the looming issue of abortion. So Maayan has seen that play out with voters in Wisconsin. Let's listen to her report.

MAAYAN SILVER, BYLINE: At a farmers market in Brookfield, a traditionally Republican suburb of Milwaukee, there are a lot of women pushing strollers, lugging bags of sweet corn or corralling kids with dripping popsicles. Jen Caulk is one of them. The registered nurse voted for Mitt Romney in 2012 but switched to Democratic presidential candidates since then, driven by the issue of reproductive rights.

JEN KOCH: I don't think it's anyone's business. You know, I don't think that you should be legislating health care decisions like that that should be a private decision. It doesn't affect the people who are screaming the loudest.

SILVER: The state currently has a near-total ban on abortion. And as it's winding its way through the courts, abortion remains a big issue here. It's one of the reasons suburban voters like Caulk are increasingly voting Democratic, says Charles Franklin, director of the Marquette Law School Poll.

CHARLES FRANKLIN: The weakening Republican support in the suburbs is not only a reaction to Donald Trump, though he's part of it. It represents a broader movement.

SILVER: Franklin says, one, the suburbs are diversifying racially and economically.

FRANKLIN: But it is also, I think, that the modern Republican Party has stronger appeal among very conservative and rural voters.

SILVER: Some call Wisconsin a tale of two states. There are the dairy-farming, soybean-growing rural areas in the north and west, deep red and heavily backing Donald Trump. And then there are the vote-rich urban areas around Milwaukee and Madison. Democrats win these areas, but, of course, there are Republicans here, too, like Jim Reise. He is from the suburbs around Milwaukee and is a Trump supporter.

JIM REISE: Well, he will be our next president. No matter what all the indictments he has, he's going to crush them because we have a very corrupt government right now.

SILVER: But Republicans here know that not all voters are like Reese. And to do better in the suburbs, they'll have to go beyond culture war issues and repeating falsehoods about election fraud.

BILL MCCOSHEN: Every second that we spend talking about the 2020 election is a second lost because we're not talking about the economy. And at the end of the day, voters always vote their pocketbook first.

SILVER: That's Bill McCoshen, a Wisconsin Republican strategist. McCoshen says Republicans also need to get better at organizing, especially since the elections are so close here. The state's two U.S. senators are of opposing parties. The legislature is Republican-led, while the governor is a Democrat. And presidential races are consistently tight. Here's Ben Wikler, chair of the Wisconsin Democrats.

BEN WIKLER: The thing everyone should understand about Wisconsin is that it is, most of the time, incredibly close even when you think it can't possibly be close. Four of the last six presidential elections have had margins of victory under one percentage point.

SILVER: Democrats scored a big win this past spring, easily electing a liberal to the state Supreme Court with abortion as a driving issue. The question going forward is whether Democrats will be able to replicate that enthusiasm or if Republicans rebound in 2024.

SHAPIRO: That's Maayan Silver reporting from Milwaukee. And NPR's Kelsey Snell is still with us. Kelsey, as we heard, Republicans are staking a lot on Wisconsin. Can they rebound?

SNELL: Well, it is truly as close as Maayan is describing. And Wisconsin is on the minds of every Republican I spoke with, including, of course, Wisconsin governor and former Republican presidential candidate Scott Walker. So he told me that the margins are so slim in the state that on average, less than one vote per ward is the difference between who wins and who loses.

SCOTT WALKER: Then the key, really, statewide is the swing votes are in the mid-sized industrial towns by and large. They're - you know, they're scattered. But that's where the biggest concentration of those voters are.

SNELL: You know, it's expensive and difficult to turn out voters outside of urban areas. It takes a lot of organizing, and it takes a lot of time.

SHAPIRO: And so if organizing is so difficult, what's the GOP's plan?

SNELL: You know, they all say the economy has to be the centerpiece of their message. They also need to make up the gaps Democrats created in voter registration around college towns and cities. And they need to really turn out white, blue-collar workers.

SHAPIRO: And Democrats are also keying in on Wisconsin. President Biden was just there. What's the Democratic Party's plan?

SNELL: Every strategist I talked to from both parties said the state Supreme Court race earlier this year that Maayan mentioned was a bit of a gift to Democrats. Take Celinda Lake. She's a pollster for Democrats, and she worked on President Biden's campaign last cycle.

CELINDA LAKE: What's good about Wisconsin and what is our ace in the back of our pocket is that the Supreme Court races helped to register turnout and draw the contrast on abortion. And that just has to be tapped into. Again, it doesn't have to be created.

SNELL: She also said abortion is an issue that is not going away. And there is mounting proof that the issue mobilizes Democrats more than it does Republicans.

SHAPIRO: NPR's Kelsey Snell. Thank you.

SNELL: Thanks so much for having me.

SHAPIRO: And we also heard reporting there from WUWM's Maayan Silver.

(SOUNDBITE OF DAMIEN RICE SONG, "VOLCANO (ALTERNATIVE VERSION)") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Kelsey Snell is a Congressional correspondent for NPR. She has covered Congress since 2010 for outlets including The Washington Post, Politico and National Journal. She has covered elections and Congress with a reporting specialty in budget, tax and economic policy. She has a graduate degree in journalism from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill. and an undergraduate degree in political science from DePaul University in Chicago.
Maayan Silver is an intern with WUWM's Lake Effect program. She is a practicing criminal defense attorney, NPR listener and student of journalism and radio production.