JANESVILLE, Wis. — Just five days removed from his White House coronavirus quarantine, President Donald Trump is set to visit Wisconsin this weekend as the state suffers from a record-high surge in coronavirus cases.
Trump originally had planned to hold the Janesville rally two weeks ago, but instead spent the day hospitalized at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center infected with COVID-19.
Two weeks later, Trump will finally arrive in Wisconsin with polls showing the president falling further behind in the state, trailing by as many as 10 points since his diagnosis stunned the nation.
Trump will touch down in Air Force One after Wisconsin set a state record on Thursday and again on Friday for new COVID-19 cases, taxing hospital capacity to the point where some patients were being treated in hallways and leading Gov. Tony Evers to open an emergency field hospital at the state fairgrounds in suburban Milwaukee.
The president’s rally not only promises to pack thousands of supporters into a setting where social distancing will not be an option and few are likely to wear masks, but also will require attendees to ride crowded shuttle buses to and from a parking lot a couple miles away.
The Saturday rally planned at the Southern Wisconsin Regional Airport in Janesville only has reinforced the wide divide between Democrats and Republicans on how best to approach the pandemic. Trump’s supporters insist the coronavirus should not bring life — and the high energy rallies — to a halt while the president’s staunch critics accuse him of recklessly endangering Wisconsinites’ lives.
Word of Trump coming to town was enough to motivate Jen Kuhnle, a Janesville nurse, to recently take time out of her brief lunch break to pick up a yard sign for Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden. Asked what brought her by the campaign office in Janesville’s riverfront downtown, Kuhnle replied with one word: “aggression.”
“Coming here and doing this rally is just crazy. This is like a power trip for him — he has to be in front of people cheering him,” said Kuhnle, 40, who has not had to treat coronavirus patients but has many friends who have. “I don’t like everything Biden has to say, but Trump is just not a good person. Asking people to wear a mask is very easy, but he won’t do it. He just makes light of it.”
Seven miles south of the airport, farmer Gary Hahn has a giant 10-by-15-foot Trump Pence flag flying from the top of his grain bins. The banner is so large that it’s visible from nearby Interstate 90.
Hahn said he signed up for tickets to the rally, but probably won’t go — not because he’s diabetic and is at higher risk for serious illness if he contracts COVID-19, but because he’s worried there is too much corn to be harvested from his 3,400 acres to spend an entire Saturday at a campaign rally.
“I would love to go. … Nobody puts a gun to anybody’s head making them go to the rallies. If you want to go, COVID or not, this is still a free country, go for it, buddy,” said Hahn, who with his wife, Michelle, owns G&M Acres farm just over the Illinois border. “We’ve got friends since March who hardly have been 5 miles from home, scared to death, wear a mask all the time, don’t let anyone in the door unless it’s family. I’m not going to ride your butt and say you’re an idiot, but I’m not gonna live that way.”
Over the last seven days, Wisconsin has tallied 21,655 new COVID-19 cases, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That trails only Texas (28,014) and California (23,601) — two states that have roughly six times and eight times the population of Wisconsin, respectively.
On a cases per capita basis, Wisconsin’s trails only North Dakota, South Dakota and Montana. The state also has four of the top eight coronavirus hot spots in the country — Wausau, Marshfield, Neenah and Appleton — according to the Dartmouth Institute, which maps COVID-19 cases by regional hospital districts.
The pandemic has only intensified Wisconsin’s bitter political divide as Republicans and some business interests have challenged Democratic Gov. Evers’ public health measures. The state’s Supreme Court struck down Evers’ initial stay-at-home order earlier this year, and a judge last week temporarily put a hold on the governor’s order limiting capacity at bars and restaurants. Republicans also continue to challenge a statewide mask mandate, which was initially upheld in court.
“We are at a critical point in the battle against this virus. We’ve had many record-setting days recently for hospitalizations, new cases and COVID-19 deaths,” Evers told reporters on Thursday. “Just because some folks out there want to see full bars and full hospitals doesn’t mean we have to follow their lead.”
Asked what he could do to convince more Wisconsinites to wear a mask and social distance to bring cases down, Evers blamed Trump, saying, “the leader of the free world hasn’t signed onto this, frankly.” Asked about the president’s Janesville rally, the governor said Trump would be “encouraging a superspreader event.”
“It’s bringing a bunch of people together who aren’t wearing a mask,” Evers said of the Trump campaign’s events in Wisconsin. “Whether it’s Eric Trump, Vice President Pence or the president himself, they have control over that crowd. They can tell them, if you don’t wear a mask, you have to leave. … They are unwilling to do that.”
Wisconsin Republican Party Chairman Andrew Hitt said that while Democrats have tried to make the pandemic a partisan issue, he noted that cases are on the rise in most of the country and in Europe.
“I can’t really explain it, but there’s a lot of people in Wisconsin who don’t want to wear a mask,” Hitt said. “And it’s not just in rural areas — it’s all over the state.”
The GOP chairman defended the Trump campaign’s decision to hold the event, and said attendees would be offered hand sanitizer and given masks that they would be asked — but not required — to wear. He said the short bus ride from a nearby parking lot to the venue would not offer a substantial risk because attendees would be in close quarters for only a limited period of time.
Asked why Trump couldn’t hold such an event virtually, Hitt said coming to the state draws more attention and makes it more likely that Wisconsinites will tune in and watch if they don’t attend.
“The president and the whole team view these rallies as very important,” Hitt said. “It’s very important to keep his base engaged and energized.”
Four years ago, Trump won Wisconsin by less than 1 percentage point over Hillary Clinton, who never campaigned in the state. A new New York Times/Siena poll released last week found Trump trailing Biden by 10 points — double the 5-point lead the same poll found last month. The recent polling average in the state has Biden with a 6-point lead.
The survey, which was conducted entirely after the first presidential debate and Trump’s coronavirus diagnosis, found voters saying by a 2-to-1 margin that Trump had not taken the proper precautions against the pandemic. Hitt dismissed the poll as from out-of-state pollsters and said Republicans believe the race is much tighter, while stressing that no poll found Trump ahead before his surprise win over Clinton in the state four years ago.
In Rock County, where Trump will hold his rally Saturday, the president won 41% of the vote to 51% for Clinton. That marked a dramatic drop-off from 2008 and 2012 when Barack Obama won more than 60% in the county.
Rock County Democratic Party Chairwoman Tracy Thompson said she thought Biden would fare much better, citing how unpopular Clinton was, the fact that she did not campaign in the state and stressing how voters now know what they’re getting with Trump — especially with his handling of the pandemic. Trump’s decision to hold a rally while the National Guard has conducted emergency COVID-19 testing at a Janesville softball complex all week only hammers home the point, she said.
“We’re trying to do everything we can to mitigate the spread and protect people, and the president has this continued persistence to come into our community and put people at risk,” Thompson said. “It’s really disheartening and disappointing.”
Janesville is the home turf of former Republican U.S. House Speaker Paul Ryan, who reluctantly endorsed Trump in 2016 only to later condemn Trump’s comments on an “Access Hollywood” tape bragging in vulgar terms about groping women.
In March 2019, Ryan tweeted that he thought the country was better off under Trump and that he would get re-elected, but in a book released a few months later Ryan revealed he retired from Congress in 2018 to avoid two more years of a Trump presidency and said the president “didn’t know anything about government.” That drew a tweet storm and a rebuke from the president who called Ryan “a baby.”
While historically part of a GOP-represented congressional seat in the southeastern corner of the state, Janesville itself is a solidly Democratic blue-collar union town.
Hence the steady stream of people coming into the Democratic HQ in downtown Janesville recently, including retired machinist Cecil Piper, who needed a replacement for his homemade plywood Biden sign that had suffered water damage.
“I’d like to go out to the airport and protest Trump, tell him to get on his damn plane and get the hell out of here,” said Piper, wearing a bright yellow Green Bay Packers shirt and holding a pair of Biden campaign buttons. “When he knew about COVID in February, he could have ramped up the protective equipment, the masks, the gowns, the ventilators and all that. He had the time, and he sat on his hands and didn’t do a damn thing. He needs to go.”
Piper particularly resented how Trump has touted he beat the virus and told Americans not to let it control their lives — only after he received the top-notch medical care at Walter Reed.
“Easy for him to stay,” Piper snorted. “He got the stuff none of us would ever get.”
Down the street at the Janesville Moose Lodge, Kate Dombeck pulled supplies out of a cramped storage closet for bingo night. The lodge, which has roughly 500 members mostly over the age of 60, used to draw more than 100 people for bingo, but since the pandemic took hold, they’re lucky to get 20.
“Trump should just stay the hell away. He’s still probably got the virus, and he doesn’t need to do his superspreading around here like he was doing at the White House,” said Dombeck, 30, who voted for Libertarian Gary Johnson in 2016, will vote for Biden this year and isn’t discussing politics with her Trump-backing parents.
“Trump has no morals. He has handled the pandemic like an imbecile,” she said. “He ignored it for so long, and when he tested positive my first thought was, ‘Deny it now.’”
Frank McNamer, 70, is retired and serves on the lodge’s board. He said Trump could have handled the pandemic better, but remains undecided on how he’ll vote after backing Clinton four years ago. On one hand, McNamer said, it’s important to keep continuity in the White House during a pandemic and he thinks Trump did a good job with the economy before it struck. On the other, he thinks Biden would look out more for the working class.
One thing McNamer wasn’t undecided on is whether Trump should hold his rally.
“If he’s gonna get the votes, he’s gonna have to show up. He should have skin in the game,” said McNamer, wearing a Moose mask. “He’s not bringing COVID in all by himself. It’s already here. If they want to run down there, without a mask on, go for it. It’s your a — on the line, not mine.”
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