The Magazine

The Battle for Wisconsin

From the September 6, 2004 issue: A Brahmin among the Cheeseheads.

Sep 6, 2004, Vol. 9, No. 48 • By STEPHEN F. HAYES
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Green Bay

JOHN KERRY may have lost Wisconsin last Wednesday. Lambeau Field is arguably the most historic sporting venue in the United States. Opposing players long for the opportunity to play there. It's the Mecca of American football. Every American male over the age of 4 can finish the description of the field made famous by the pseudo-thunderous voice of ESPN's Chris Berman: "The Frooooooozen Tunnnnnnnndra of . . . "

Lambert Field?

That's what John Kerry called it during a stop last week in Green Bay. Lambert Field.

We go now to Scott Stanzel, spokesman for the Bush campaign. "What can you expect from a guy who probably thinks the phrase 'the frozen tundra of Lambeau' is something on the menu in an expensive French restaurant full of foreign leaders?"

To give you some idea of how important Green Bay Packer football is to Wisconsin, consider this:

While most NFL teams struggle to fill the stands for preseason games, the Packers sold out Lambeau Field for an intra-squad scrimmage in which tackling was prohibited.

Every summer, fans ring Clark Hinkle practice field 20-deep to watch the Packers' training camp.

After the Packers won the Super Bowl in 1996, 43.2 percent of males born in the state were named Brett.

I made that last one up, but there sure seem to be a disproportionate number of 8-year-old Bretts running around the state. (Named after quarterback Brett Favre, for you Chicago Bears fans.)

Lambeau Field is so important to the state, and Packers fans so representative of likely Wisconsin voters, that that's where I chose to travel nine days before Kerry's gaffe to conduct primary research on the state of the presidential race in Wisconsin.

I started at the Stadium View Sports Bar and Grille, where 24 oz. Miller Lites were selling for an outrageous $6.00. (They came with free green-and-gold New Orleans-style beads, however.) New digital voice-recorder in hand, I approached a busty young woman wearing a cheese-bra--support made out of the foamy, faux-cheese material Packers fans often wear in triangles on their heads. She was not interested in talking about politics.

I had more luck with Brian Budsberg, a retired insurance salesman from Waupaca. Budsberg, accompanied by his brother from Texas, railed against the media's misreporting of Iraq. They're both for Bush.

So was Jose Cornejo from Sussex. Cornejo is a self-described Reagan Democrat who has voted Republican since 1980. He and his wife are voting for Bush.

Over the course of the evening, I interviewed perhaps two dozen voters. Each one claimed to be a Bush supporter. The exception was Linda Marquardt, a graphic designer from Green Bay, who readily agreed to be interviewed when I ordered two more Miller Lites from the Beer Man. (It's capitalized in Wisconsin.) Marquardt was an impressive multitasker. As the third quarter began, she answered questions about the race, participated in the wave, and watched the game. "I'm an anti-Bush voter. I would have voted for whoever the Democrats put up." The Packers lost.

I returned to the Stadium View after the game and struck up a conversation with Trevor Ward, an unemployed bartender from La Crosse, and a friend wearing a hat featuring a ten-point buck devouring a foamy, yellow wedge of cheese. The friend, perhaps understandably, refused to be identified. Ward, too, is a Bush supporter. I asked him why:

WARD: I'm going to vote for Bush because once I become successful, which I plan on doing, I want my money.

ME: But you're not successful yet?

WARD: Not yet. . . . I'm unemployed and I'm going to vote for Bush.

Ward and the deer-cheese guy were good company, so we spent a considerable amount of time discussing how Ward might become successful. But in the end we returned to the Packers and politics.

ME: If Favre endorsed one candidate or the other, do you think it matters?

WARD: It would carry the state.

ME: You think it would?

WARD: I know it would.

ME: Who would he support?

WARD: I don't know Brett Favre personally, but a good friend that I hung with every year knows Jeff Favre, his brother. They're huge into hunting. They like their guns, and I'm sure Brett likes his money. So I would say like 8-out-of-10--I don't know Brett personally--but there's an 80 percent chance he's definitely Republican. And if he were to say it, it would definitely carry the state.

Assuming Brett Favre doesn't endorse anyone, Wisconsin will likely see an unprecedented level of political activity in the next two months. "After Labor Day, you won't see a new car ad for six weeks," says Keith Schmitz, a grassroots activist and Kerry supporter from the Milwaukee suburb of Shorewood. Wisconsinites have already been inundated with ads, phone calls, and candidate visits. Bush has been to the state 13 times as president. Of his 7 campaign bus trips, 3 have taken him to Wisconsin. John Edwards toured the state early last week. Kerry's ill-fated trip to Green Bay came just two days after Edwards left the state. The Democratic National Committee launched its first television ad of the 2004 campaign in Madison . . . in July 2003.

Outside groups have also been as active in Wisconsin as they have in any state. The Swift Boat Veterans for Truth chose the state in their targeted rollout of ads attacking John Kerry. The Progress for America Voter Fund, another "527" group, released the first of its anti-Kerry ads last Wednesday in just two states--Iowa and Wisconsin. Anti-Bush groups such as MoveOn.org and the Media Fund have spent considerable sums trashing the president in the state.

This saturation will not be limited to ads, or "paid media," but will also include the free media generated by news coverage. Democratic strategists say the Kerry campaign plans to have events featuring the candidates or prominent surrogates almost daily in Wisconsin from Labor Day through the November 2 election.

The reason for all of this attention is simple. Wisconsin, according to Hotline editor-in-chief Chuck Todd, is "the swingiest of all the swing states."

Al Gore won Wisconsin by 5,708 votes in 2000--47.8 percent to 47.6 percent. (Ralph Nader won 94,070 votes--4 percent.) Republicans think the margin was closer. "There were dozens of reports of malfeasance in Milwaukee County," says Rep. Paul Ryan, co-chairman of the Bush campaign in Wisconsin. "Lots of people think it was stolen from Bush in 2000."

For months polls have shown the race to be dead even, with most of the results within the margin of error. A poll published Friday by the Los Angeles Times shows that little has changed. Bush leads Kerry 45 percent to 44 percent, with Ralph Nader at 3 percent. The margin of error is 3 percentage points.

This down-the-middle split manifests itself in the state's political leadership: While both of Wisconsin's senators are Democrats, the House delegation is split evenly, 4-4. Governor Jim Doyle is a Democrat, but Republicans control both branches of the state legislature.

IN A TYPICAL ELECTION YEAR a Democratic presidential campaign would likely dismiss or altogether ignore an interview request from a weekly agricultural newspaper with a readership of just 25,000. This is not, of course, a typical election year. And the publication in question happens to be located in western Wisconsin--one of the few rural areas where Al Gore ran well in 2000. The Kerry campaign is hoping to build on that success.

So not only did John Kerry give an interview to Scott Schultz, managing editor of The Country Today, but Kerry's campaign solicited the coverage. "The Kerry campaign was the one who contacted me," says Schultz, in an email. "They said they were interested in getting their message out to the rural population and asked whether I'd be interested in having 15 minutes or so one-on-one via telephone while the senator was traveling."

Kerry spoke with Schultz on June 23, 2004. One week later, in its issue dated June 30, 2004, The Country Today broke news that would be especially significant to its readership. "Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry said that if he's elected, he'd no longer support special regional dairy pricing programs that some Wisconsin and Minnesota farm leaders have opposed. Sen. Kerry had supported the Northeast Dairy Compact, which Upper Midwest dairy leaders said unfairly benefited Northeast dairy producers."

Two days later, on July 2, Kerry addressed a large rally at a dairy farm in Independence, Wisconsin. "I plead guilty. I did vote for the compact as a representative of farmers in Massachusetts," he explained. "I'm going to stand up for farmers in Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Iowa just as hard as I did for the farmers in Massachusetts." The crowd roared its approval.

It was an admirable and refreshing moment of candor. But it was still a flip-flop. And whatever good the careful planning and straight talk might have done was quickly undone by the candidate's awkward attempt to transform himself from John Forbes Kerry to Farmer John.

"Let me tell you something: When I was a kid, this 'kid from the East' had an aunt and uncle who had a dairy farm, and one of my greatest joys in life in fact, I lived on a farm as a young kid. My parents, when we lived in Massachusetts, we lived on a farm, and I learned my first cuss word sitting on a tractor with the guy who was driving it."

Kerry continued shoveling.

"When I was 12 years old, my passion was being allowed to go out and sit on the John Deere and drive it around the field and plow, and I learned, as a kid, what it was like to look in back of me and see those furrows, and see that pattern, and feel a sense of accomplishment, and end up dusty and dirty and tired but feeling great, looking back at that field that you plowed."

Those are Kerry's words that day, as recorded in the July 4, 2004, Boston Globe. According to the same article, Kerry spokesman Stephanie Cutter explained Kerry's farm days this way: Cutter "said Kerry was referring to two farm experiences, one when he and his parents lived on a farm in Millis, Mass., and later when he frequented a dairy farm straddling the Ipswich/Hamilton border that was owned by his aunt and uncle. The first farm was where Kerry rode a tractor with a hand who worked the family's property. At the dairy farm, he tilled the land himself. At the time, Kerry's parents lived in Europe and he attended boarding school in Switzerland, but he returned to Massachusetts on vacations, Cutter said."

BUSH'S MOST RECENT TRIP to Wisconsin came on August 18. He began with a rally in Chippewa Falls, home to the legendary Leinenkugel's brewery. Of the four Wisconsin towns Bush visited that day, Chippewa Falls--population 12,924--was the largest.

Locals lined the streets to see the president, or at least his motorcade. Veterans saluted. Wheelchair-bound nursing home residents were wheeled out to the curb. Kids waved American flags. One burly man held a large sign with silver, duct-tape letters: "Mr. President--Let's Roll. Victory 2004." But not all of the signs were friendly. "Dick is a Dick," read one, presumably referring to Cheney, not Gephardt.

The presidential visit clearly strained the resources of the community. In Chippewa Falls, squad cars blocked the streets for Bush's motorcade. But the local police ran out of cars. A dark green pickup truck with "Chippewa Falls Animal Control" written on its side blocked one street, a bright orange garbage truck sealed off another. Further down the highway, a patrol boat from the Chippewa County Sheriff's Department obstructed traffic as six motorcoaches--two red-white-and-blue Bush-Cheney buses and four for the press--cruised by.

Bush's speech in Chippewa Falls varied little from his standard stump speech. He ticked off the accomplishments of his first term and goals for a second. He cracked a few jokes, thanked the local politicians, and reminded Wisconsin Republicans that he thinks his wife is doing a terrific job as First Lady.

Midway through the speech, Bush sarcastically referred to John Kerry's tortured explanation of his vote against the $87 billion to fund troops in Iraq. "When asked about why, he said, well, he actually did vote for the $87 billion right before he voted against it," Bush explained. "I don't think people talk like that here."

Bush uses that line wherever he gives the speech--Ohio, Pennsylvania, New Mexico. But it is particularly effective in Wisconsin, which has a long tradition of favoring plainspoken elected officials. (Think Robert LaFollette and Joe McCarthy.)

"The death-knell for a Democrat in Wisconsin is to be a flip-flopper," says Rep. Ryan, a conservative from Janesville. "The credibility issue for John Kerry is his biggest liability."

"In Wisconsin, people will vote for you if you're consistent," he adds, citing the voters he shared with Ralph Nader in 2000 as evidence. "That's why you get liberals like Russ Feingold, who is certainly to the left of the voters here, getting reelected."

But there's a downside to consistency: stubbornness. Ron Kind, a Democrat from La Crosse who represents Wisconsin's third congressional district, believes Bush is vulnerable because "people are unhappy with the direction of the country. You can't discount that motivation."

The Bush supporters I met at Lambeau Field will have a tough decision to make three days before the election. That's when their beloved Packers--okay, our beloved Packers--travel to Washington, D.C., to play the Redskins. According to the Hotline's Chuck Todd, a noted Packers fan, "If the Redskins lose or tie in their last game before the election, the incumbent's party loses the White House." How long has that superstition held true? For the last 72 years--or 18 presidential elections.

Go Packers?

Stephen F. Hayes, a native of Wauwatosa, Wisconsin, is a staff writer at The Weekly Standard.