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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"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.