Wisconsin’s Fox Valley Is Key to Presidential Election

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LITTLE CHUTE, Wis. — The 12,000 residents of this village 24 miles south of Green Bay backed Barack Obama in 2012 and Donald Trump in 2016. But in 2018 they made a narrow split decision — a 461-vote margin for Gov. Scott Walker, a conservative Republican, and a 132-vote advantage for Senator Tammy Baldwin, a liberal Democrat.

Packed amid former paper mill towns, Little Chute sits at the heart of the Fox Valley, a three-county stretch from Green Bay to Oshkosh that is the most politically competitive region in one of America’s foremost battleground states.

Democrats tend to focus their Wisconsin campaigns on turning out voters in the liberal cities of Milwaukee and Madison, while Republicans concentrate on the conservative suburbs ringing Milwaukee. But it is often the Fox Valley where statewide elections are won or lost.

And this year, there is a new wild card, the coronavirus, which is rampaging through the Fox Valley, with new case counts averaging nearly 600 a day.

The three counties — Brown, Outagamie and Winnebago — all backed Mr. Obama in 2008, and two of the three narrowly went for Mitt Romney in 2012 before they all backed Mr. Trump four years later. But like Little Chute, in 2018 all three counties backed Mr. Walker, who narrowly lost his bid for a third term as governor, and Ms. Baldwin, who coasted to re-election to the Senate.

“It’s a purple region within a purple state, and purple regions swing back and forth depending on the times,” said Senator Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, an Oshkosh Republican.

The combination of old factory towns and rural voters who have migrated to the Republican Party, college towns and small cities becoming increasingly Democratic, and Catholic voters inclined to back Democrats as long as they aren’t too strident on abortion rights has made the region that includes the state’s third-, fifth- and sixth-largest counties the ultimate presidential battleground.

It is the headquarters of the John Birch Society and the cradle of McCarthyism — Senator Joseph McCarthy was born in Grand Chute — but it reveres Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers, one of the N.F.L.’s most prominent social justice activists.

It is also an epicenter of the coronavirus surge rampaging through Wisconsin. All three counties have new virus case counts that exceed the state’s average for the last week. Of the 15 cities with the worst coronavirus outbreaks in the country, eight are in Wisconsin and five — Appleton, Fond du Lac, Green Bay, Manitowoc and Oshkosh — are in the greater Fox Valley. And that may change the political equation in an area that is not ordinarily driven by national issues.

“There’s, I think, a sense of desperation about how we are going to survive this,” said Amanda Stuck, the Democratic candidate for the House from Appleton. “We have to get back to work. But at the same time, we see stories every day about how our hospitals are at capacity, and we don’t know what we’re going to do here anymore if beds continue to fill up.”

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Interviews with voters in the region found an unusual number of people who have ping-ponged between parties during election years — and sometimes on the same ballot.

David Werley, a Green Bay lawyer, voted for Mr. Obama in 2008, Mr. Romney in 2012 and the Libertarian Gary Johnson in 2016. On Wednesday afternoon, he deposited a ballot marked for former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. into a drop box outside Green Bay’s City Hall.

“I’m a true independent voter,” Mr. Werley, 34, said. “I really look at the person. I look at whether or not they are genuine.”

Mr. Werley said there were few issues that drive his allegiance at the polls. Instead, he focuses on whether a candidate can be trusted.

“I liked Rand Paul and Bernie Sanders,” he said of the arch-conservative Republican and democratic socialist. “They have been saying the same thing forever. I like sincere people that are not going to jump on the latest poll.”

Mr. Trump is scheduled to host a campaign rally at the Green Bay airport Friday afternoon, one of a few campaign stops in the region in the countdown to Election Day. Donald Trump Jr. addressed supporters on Tuesday in De Pere, and Pete Buttigieg, the former South Bend, Ind., mayor and Democratic presidential hopeful, last week stumped for Mr. Biden at a brewery across the street from Lambeau Field, home of the locally beloved Packers.

Mr. Biden hasn’t visited Brown, Outagamie or Winnebago Counties in 2020, but he did make a September campaign stop in Manitowoc, a manufacturing hub in a Republican county 40 miles to the east on the Lake Michigan shore. The one campaign stop Hillary Clinton scheduled in Wisconsin in 2016 would have been in Green Bay, but she canceled it after the Pulse nightclub mass shooting in Orlando, Fla.

“Think of the Fox Valley as the New Hampshire of general election voters,” said Thomas Nelson, the Outagamie County executive who grew up in Little Chute and now lives in Appleton.

Mr. Nelson, a Democrat who on Monday began a 2022 bid for Mr. Johnson’s Senate seat, said voters in this part of Wisconsin were far less likely to reflexively vote for one party or the other.

“There’s an expectation that people that run for office take their voters seriously and work hard for their vote,” he said.

Mr. Johnson had previously pledged to retire after two terms, but in an interview Wednesday, he indicated he was leaning toward seeking a third term in 2022. “Things have changed,” he said. “The House is no longer a firewall. I’ve got to see what happens in this election.”

Charles Franklin, the Marquette Law School pollster who conducts the state’s most respected political survey, said the story of the Fox Valley is that its cities — Appleton, Green Bay and Oshkosh — are becoming more Democratic while the rural areas have become more Republican.

In between are communities that once had populations of loyal union Democrats who have become political chameleons as the mills and factories have closed.

“Those counties are becoming more competitive by becoming more polarized between the cities and the countryside,” Mr. Franklin said. “There’s enough people that live outside the cities that this is not a sure-thing realignment to the Democrats.”

In Little Chute, a series of voters casting ballots at Village Hall on Thursday recounted jumping from one party to the other and back in recent elections.

Terry Rathsack, a retired chef, said he voted for Mr. Obama and then Mr. Trump, whom he backed a second time because of the president’s stance opposing abortion. He said there’s no consensus among his friends and neighbors about whom to vote for.

“It’s all mixed up,” Mr. Rathsack said. “Everybody I talk to is for somebody else.”

Across the Village Hall plaza, Linda McDaniel, a retiree who volunteers to give tours of the village’s 110-foot-high Dutch wooden windmill, said she’d been a Bush voter who migrated to Mr. Obama and is backing Mr. Biden.

“I’m not always a Democrat, it depends on the person,” she said. “I think a lot of people are voting for Trump because of the abortion thing. I don’t like abortion either, I’m against it too, but I don’t like Trump.”

While the Fox Valley is often competitive in statewide elections, its political representation is determined by Wisconsin’s fiercely gerrymandered legislative and congressional maps. It is split between two congressional districts, and Little Chute, with just 12,000 residents, is divided between three districts each in the Wisconsin State Senate and Assembly.

As a result, the region’s Democrats are vastly outnumbered by Republicans in the State Legislature, and neither of its congressional districts are considered competitive.

Ms. Stuck, a State Assembly member and substitute public-school teacher who is running for Congress against Representative Mike Gallagher, a Republican from Green Bay, said the region’s economic diversity means its voters are attuned to and impacted by national trends.

“We have a manufacturing base, we have a farming base, we just have a real unique mix that can really feel what’s happening,” she said during an interview outside an Appleton coffee shop Thursday. “People here are really impacted by those national decisions and so are paying attention perhaps more and are willing to swing depending on who they think will be best for them.”

Reid Ribble, a Republican from Sherwood, just around the top of Lake Winnebago from Appleton, represented the area in Congress for six years before retiring after the 2016 election. He said his old constituents did not engage in the sort of tribal political warfare that takes place in Milwaukee, Madison and the state’s rural regions.

“They’re a bit more discriminating than letting themselves get caught in the trap of following a particular party protocol,” he said. “You’ll see people voting for Biden and for Mike Gallagher for Congress.”

At the Little Chute Village Hall, Joe Driessen, 63, a retired warehouse manager, voted for George W. Bush, then Mr. Obama, sat out the 2016 election and cast a ballot for Mr. Biden on Thursday.

Mr. Driessen’s caregiver, Stephanie Osburn, 35, an Appletonian, pushed his wheelchair to Village Hall. She said the coronavirus would not play a significant factor in her decision — she had it and didn’t think it was so bad. “I’ve had worse hangovers,” she said.

She voted for Mr. Obama, then Mr. Johnson in 2016 and isn’t sure what to do this year.

“I still have not made a final decision,” she said. “Both of them have positive and negative things.”