How virus politics divided a conservative northern Wisconsin city

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MINOCQUA, Wisconsin – When coronavirus cases began to increase in Wisconsin this fall, Rob Swearingen kept his restaurant open and let customers and employees decide if they wanted to wear masks.

Mr Swearingen, a Republican seeking his fifth term in the Wisconsin State Assembly, did not demand that other employees at his restaurant in Rhinelander be tested after a waitress and bartender had contracted the virus because, he said, no one from the local health department suggested it was necessary.

Kirk Bangstad, Mr Swearingen’s Democratic opponent, has taken the opposite approach at the brewery he owns in Minocqua, 30 miles away. It served customers only outdoors, and when a teenage boy was infected after attending a party, Mr Bangstad shut down for a long weekend and forced all employees to get tested. .

Mr Bangstad has since turned his entire campaign into a referendum on how Republicans have handled the coronavirus. On Facebook, he served as the city’s shamer, posting lists of restaurants and stores in Wisconsin’s Northwoods that did not meet state capacity limits for hospitality and do not require masks.

Days away from the election, the contest for Mr. Swearingen’s assembly seat in this sparsely populated Northwoods region of Wisconsin serves as a microcosm of how coronavirus politics are unfolding across America. Mr Bangstad is unlikely to win in a Republican district that covers parts of four counties stretching south of Michigan’s upper peninsula, but his efforts to make the campaign a referendum on the virus echo those of former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., who sought to make President Trump’s handling of the pandemic the central issue in the presidential race.

Mr Bangstad, a 43-year-old former professional opera singer trained at Harvard, returned to Wisconsin six years ago from Manhattan, where he was a technology consultant and policy director for the 2013 campaign. Anthony Weiner at City Hall. Like Mr. Biden, he avoided the traditional countryside. He shifted his entire effort online, including via email and on his brewery’s Facebook page, the Minocqua Brewing Company.

But unlike the former vice president, Mr Bangstad has made little effort to convince voters who are not already dismayed by Republicans’ handling of the coronavirus. Many of them, he said, are fooled by false or misleading statements from the president and the conservative news media.

“A lot of them, I think, haven’t been equipped with the media literacy tools or the critical thinking to be able to discern if they are being told something that doesn’t quite freeze or doesn’t. is not true, ”he said. during an interview this week in his shuttered restaurant overlooking Lake Minocqua.

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Oneida County, which includes Minocqua and Rhinelander, where Mr. Swearingen runs the Al-Gen dinner club and has lived his entire life, has a virus rate almost twice the state average over the past few years. last two weeks.

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Among the county’s recent deaths is Scott Haskins, whose wife Pamela is a waitress at Al-Gen. Ms Haskins contracted the virus after working at a restaurant in mid-September and was hospitalized in early October. Mr Haskins, 63, went to hospital with the virus four days after his wife, according to his daughter, Kelly Schulz.

Two days later, Mr. Haskins suffered a stroke and died.

“The day after my father died, Governor Evers set the 25% capacity limit, and they broke it,” Ms. Schulz said of Al-Gen. “People were posting pictures of themselves on Facebook and it was pretty busy for a Friday night.”

Republicans who control the state legislature this month have successfully sued Mr Evers to overturn capacity limits on bars and restaurants he ordered. In Oneida County, local sheriffs and city police departments were not enforcing them anyway.

Prior to winning the assembly election, Mr. Swearingen, 57, was president of the Tavern League of Wisconsin, the state’s powerful bar lobby. He fought state efforts to ban smoking inside businesses, raise the drinking age from 18 to 21, and raise the legal blood alcohol limit for driving.

He said his restaurant was not responsible for the employees who caught the coronavirus. No one from the local health department has ever called to ask questions, he said, and no contact tracers have contacted the restaurant. Mr Swearingen said he had not been tested himself.

“There has been no connection to the restaurant with any of these cases,” he said during an interview in the Al-Gen dining room, which is adorned with taxidermy deer heads and black bears. “These people work part-time, come from different jobs and different things.”

Of all the places Democrats barely bothered to compete in 2016, Wisconsin’s Northwoods were perhaps the most overlooked. Not only did Hillary Clinton ignore Wisconsin altogether, that region’s County Democrats didn’t even have any garden signs to hand out, not that there had been much demand for them.

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Ms. Clinton was a “polarizing” candidate, said Matt Michalsen, a high school social studies teacher who ran against Mr. Swearingen in 2016. “Personally, did I support her? No.”

Four years later, Mr. Bangstad has little hope of winning. He sees his campaign in large part as an effort to increase Mr. Biden’s Democratic participation and to reduce Mr. Trump’s margins by focusing his attention on the impact of the coronavirus on northern Wisconsin.

Mr Bangstad wrapped the side of his restaurant in a giant Biden-Harris sign that drew the wrath of Oneida County Council, who sent a letter advising him that it was over the allowed size of 32 square feet. After Mr Bangstad used the clashes to raise funds and draw more attention to himself in the local press, the council backed down.

At the same time, the Biden campaign and local Democrats have invested significantly more resources in northern Wisconsin than they were four years ago. There are twice as many organizers focused on the area as in 2016. And although the Clinton campaign has sworn road signs are an unnecessary annoyance, the state party has made efforts to bring them into every court that would take one.

“We handed out about 50 Hillary Yard signs four years ago, and we’re over 1,200 so far for Joe,” said Jane Nicholson, the party chair in Vilas County, just in north of Oneida County.

There is evidence that Mr. Biden is catching up. A poll taken for Mr. Bangstad’s campaign this month found that Mr. Trump was leading Mr. Biden in the district by five percentage points – well below his 25-point victory margin in 2016. The same poll showed revealed that Mr. Swearingen was 12 points ahead. points, less than half of his 26-point margin over Mr Michalsen four years ago.

Mr. Trump won Wisconsin in 2016 by less than 23,000 votes statewide. His gap in Mr. Swearingen’s district alone was 14,000 votes.

“If we’re in our 40s there, that means we’ve blocked Trump’s path to getting the votes he would need to cancel other parts of the state,” Party Chairman Ben Wikler said. Democrat of Wisconsin.

The run for the assembly engendered feelings of pain and deepened political divisions in Minocqua, a town of about 4,000 full-time residents. Down the street from the Minocqua Brewing Company, Tracy Lin Grigus, a Trump supporter who owns Shade Tree bookstore, shook her head at Mr Bangstad’s attempts to shame local businesses.

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“On his Facebook he calls us all here idiots, like mini Joe Biden,” said Ms Grigus, who doesn’t wear a mask in her store and doesn’t ask her customers to do so. “It’s insulting to the people who share the space with him and other business owners. He is like the only one in this town and the surrounding towns to have gone so far.

Across Oneida Street, the main drag in Minocqua’s small town center, Casie Oldenhoff, deputy manager of the Monkey Business t-shirt store, where signs tell customers to wear a mask, said Mr. Trump was responsible for the current wave of the pandemic. .

“He just doesn’t take care of us,” Ms. Oldenhoff said. “He doesn’t care what happens with the pandemic.

Mr Swearingen said he had little doubt that Mr Trump would do as well on Tuesday in the Northwoods as he did in 2016. Enthusiasm for the president is higher, he said, as This is evidenced by the regular parades of boats and cars adorned with Trump. flags and carrying young men preoccupied above all by a Biden administration taking away their weapons.

But he said he had never been involved in such a lousy campaign as his this year.

“We have been targeted by my opponent as a lair for Covid and all kinds of rumors on Facebook,” he said. “I never really had to fight Facebook in an election. He lashed out at a few other bars in the area, and one of the bar owners was furious that this bar was on the list. It’s like, ‘Well, who are these people? It’s the mask police or something. “

For Mr Bangstad, to shame Mr Swearingen and the other Republicans who fought against the public health guidelines is exactly the point.

“If you are a citizen of this state and there is a branch of government that tries to keep people healthy from Covid, and you have the legislative branch and the judicial branch trying to block it every time that he does, it’s the saddest thing you’ve ever seen, ”he said. “As a Wisconsinite, I am completely ashamed.”

Andy Mills and Luke Vander Ploeg contributed reporting.