Will Trump Democrats In Wisconsin Swing Back To Their Party?

Feb 22, 2017
Originally published on February 22, 2017 5:58 pm

Democrat Michelle Frankard of Wisconsin voted for President Trump, and she's hoping she won't regret it.

At the Garden of Eatin', a bustling diner in picturesque Galesville, Frankard is having breakfast with her adopted father, Ken Horton. A dozen shiny electric guitars line the walls, each next to a black-and-white framed poster with the likes of Johnny Cash and Janis Joplin. The deep-seated booths host a variety of regulars and those just passing through.

Frankard, a 53-year-old mother of two, voted twice for Obama before choosing Trump during last year's election. She says Obama lost her vote because of big spending. Trump won it with his talk of law and order and the promise of bringing more jobs.

But she is worried.

"He said he was going to do better for us, but he's not really doing it, is he?" she says. "That's a disappointment, and it also puts fear in people because they are thinking, well, what is next? Are we going to lose our Social Security? ... Are we going to be ending up on the streets without health care? What's next? And that's where fear comes into play."

Her 68-year-old dad is a Republican all the way. He says he wants to be excited for Trump's first few weeks in office — because he wants to see him succeed — but he is concerned, too.

"My concern has been the last week or so his decisions and people resigning off of his staff and his secretaries, and I just want to see good people in office," he says.

If Trump doesn't succeed, Frankard jokes, she might go back to voting as a Democrat.

This vacillation is not surprising. Craig Gilbert, political writer for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, says Wisconsin is really a purple state masquerading as a blue one, and that rural districts in the north and west tend to swing wildly in presidential elections.

But Brandy Holter, 32, says her shift away from the Democratic Party is a permanent one. For the past 11 years, this busy mother of four has lived in the town of La Crosse, about half an hour from Galesville. Holter, much like Frankard, voted for Trump after choosing Obama twice before.

"The first time I was like, 'Oh – we are going to make change, this is going to be great. This is a historical vote and I am going to vote for Obama and see how things go,' " she says. "The second time around I was like, 'Well, he really did not do too great the first time — I am going to chalk that up to people opposing everything he wanted to put out, and we will see if he can make a difference this time around.' And then he did not make a difference the second time around."

Unlike Frankard, Holter says she is "done voting for Democrats."

"They want to hand out too much free stuff and nobody wants to work anymore, and our system is being taken advantage of because of it," Holter says.

She is very pleased with Trump's performance so far.

"He's actually doing what he said he was going to do," Holter says, "[with] the pipelines and trying to secure our borders. He is actually doing stuff, and he has only been in office for not even a month. That's a big deal — that's a big step for a president."

Other Trump Democrats could go the way of Reagan Democrats a generation before them.

Reagan Democrats were white, without a college education and politically moderate. In 1980 these voters — in states like Ohio, Michigan and Pennsylvania — crossed party lines to cast votes for then-candidate Ronald Reagan in his massive defeat of Jimmy Carter.

The demographics of the Trump voters in many ways echo that of the Reagan Democrat. But Trump's election win over Hillary Clinton wasn't nearly as decisive as Reagan's.

And even Reagan Democrats swung back to their original party to elect Bill Clinton in 1992.

Holter's congressman, Democrat Ron Kind, is hoping this will happen again. Kind, who represents Wisconsin's 3rd District, says his constituents are looking to find good-paying jobs that will support not just themselves but also their families and their children.

"We've had intense globalization over the last few decades — a much more interdependent global economy," Kind says.

People want to know how they fit into that system, he says, and they're asking themselves, "Am I going to have the tools, the skills, the education in which to compete in this global economy?"

Neither party has found a way to address those concerns, Kind says.

Democrats need to do a better job reaching out and listening to rural Americans, he says, but Trump's actions will also play a large role in public opinion.

"The idea of blocking and just blaming everything on President Obama or Obamacare or what have you, that ain't going to fly," Kind says. "They're going to want to see some results being produced ... [like] how Republicans are going to approach the reform of the health care system without it adversely affecting their lives back home. It's going be, I think, a key test. Whether or not they're going to be able to revitalize these rural economies with good job opportunities, I think, is going to be another key test."

If Republicans don't deliver, Kind says, he can see the voters swing back as early the next midterm elections. Yet Kind himself is now a target. The National Republican Congressional Committee has placed his longtime Democratic-leaning district on the list of 36 House seats they hope to flip to their side in 2018.

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Next, we're going to Wisconsin, the crack in the electoral map's so-called blue wall.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: We don't break it. We shattered that sucker. We shattered it. We shattered it. Man, that poor wall is busted up.

CORNISH: Donald Trump has crowed about delivering rustbelt states that Barack Obama won. And Republicans like Wisconsin's Paul Ryan are grateful.


PAUL RYAN: He won Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin. That's expanding the Republican tent. We used to call them Reagan Democrats. Now they're Trump Democrats.

CORNISH: That's the House speaker on "PBS NewsHour" a few weeks ago. But just how tight is the GOP's grip on that state, or on the Trump Democrats themselves?

MICHELLE FRANKARD: I am not a Republican. No, I'm not. I'm a Trump Democrat. And now I wonder, am I going to regret this?

CORNISH: That's Michelle Frankard of Holmen, Wis. We'll hear more from her in a bit. But first, how Wisconsin got to this moment. Frankard lives in a small rural town in the western part of the state, the kind of town that helped Trump eke out a win by a percentage point. Craig Gilbert, political writer for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, has studied these rural voters for a long time.

CRAIG GILBERT: Donald Trump did better in rural Wisconsin than Ronald Reagan did in the '80s when he won in a landslide. He did better than Richard Nixon in the '70s when Nixon won in his 1972 landslide.

CORNISH: Gilbert says Wisconsin is really a purple state masquerading as a blue one. And that rural districts in the north and west tend to swing wildly in presidential elections. So in a state that was so close there was a recount, little things make a difference, like the 150,000-plus people who went for third party candidates, the lower turnout for Democrats, the higher turnout for Trump. That's how you get a crack in the Rust Belt's blue wall.

GILBERT: So even though he barely won the state, he won by colossal margins in northern and western Wisconsin. And it took a rural landslide of that magnitude for him to barely carry Wisconsin because of his weakness in other parts of the state.

CORNISH: So what does that sound like? How are voters, and especially Trump Democrats in that state, thinking about what happened and what happens next? I traveled to the Garden of Eden to find out.

AMY HEMBD: The name of the restaurant came from this particular area being known as the Garden of Eden because of its beauty and all kinds of other reasons.

CORNISH: OK, actually it's called the Garden of Eatin. Amy Hembd welcomed us to this diner in Galesville, Wis., a tiny town in the part of the state nestled near the head of the Mississippi River Valley. Galesville has a population of a little more than 1,500. And it seems like at some point, you will meet many of them at this restaurant.

HEMBD: Do you need a couple minutes?

CORNISH: Hembd owns the place with her husband Billy. Rock music gets him through the morning breakfast rush as he mans the kitchen. There's a dozen shiny electric guitars lining the walls, and above each, a black and white framed poster with the likes of Johnny Cash and Janis Joplin. The deep-seated booths host a variety of regulars and those just passing through.

HEMBD: On a daily basis, I see two strangers that have never talked to each other. A week later, they're meeting here for breakfast.

CORNISH: Talking politics ever (laughter)?

HEMBD: You know, talking everything, yes, politics, religion, news, you know, the weather, whatever. A lot of times they're talking about music.

CORNISH: I was one of those strangers for the day. And the first person to take me up on the offer to chat, 56-year-old Eric Sopher.


CORNISH: He's working his way through a newspaper and an omelet at the diner counter.

SOPHER: Well, I'm semi-retired, not doing anything semi even, sometimes odd jobs, snow removal, landscaping.

CORNISH: Sopher says his family has voted for Democrats going back to President Johnson. But this year, he says, shook his faith.

SOPHER: It was kind of tough because I wasn't swayed with Republican or anything like that. But I really fell in like with Bernie Sanders. (Laughter) You know, it was like a relationship. We didn't even know each other, you know. It was...

CORNISH: But the closest you came was liking someone who isn't even technically a Democrat.

SOPHER: Right, right.

CORNISH: (Laughter) That doesn't sound like you're in love with Democrats right now.

SOPHER: Well, I'm in love with the Constitution. I'm in love with democracy. Democrats - what it's like, it's like if I get sick of Lay's barbecue potato chips. I'm still going to eat them. But it's going to take while.


CORNISH: We move on to the booth across the aisle, where another Democrat, 36-year-old business owner Emery Palmer is reaching for his last sips of coffee. He says he was surprised that this rural Wisconsin district flipped from blue to red.

EMERY PALMER: That's not the votes I expected from my neighbors.

CORNISH: Palmer says it's all made him question whether party lines were as hardwired as he thought they were, and even the whole idea of hope and change coming from politicians.

PALMER: What it's made me think is maybe the political system isn't the venue for change that I had been brought up to believe it was.

CORNISH: As for Trump Democrats? Palmer doubts they even exist. But while the numbers aren't huge, there are Trump Democrats in Wisconsin. In fact, in the very next booth, Michelle Frankard calls out to us.

FRANKARD: Hi. Have a seat.

CORNISH: Frankard is a 53-year-old mother of two from nearby Holmen, Wis.

I'm glad we met you because I was starting to think we made you up, the Trump Democrat.

FRANKARD: (Laughter) No, no.

CORNISH: Are they in hiding?

FRANKARD: You didn't make me up. You didn't make me up. No, we exist. We're out there. You just got to dig a little deeper probably (laughter).

CORNISH: Are people hiding a little bit?

FRANKARD: I think so. I think so. People are afraid to really talk about it and view their opinions and be open about it. People are in a lot of fear. There's a lot of people nervous since Trump got in office.

CORNISH: How come?

FRANKARD: He said he was going to do better for us. But he's not really doing it, is he? That's a disappointment. And it also puts fear in people because they're like, well, what's next? Are we going to lose our social security? Are we going to be ending up on the streets without health care? What's next? And that's where fear comes in to play.

CORNISH: Frankard says Obama lost her vote because of big spending. Trump won it with his talk of law and order and the promise of bringing more jobs. She says her adopted father and breakfast mate, Ken Horton, is a Republican all the way. I asked the 68-year-old how he feels about Trump's first few weeks in office.

PALMER: Well, I want to be excited because I want him - I want to see him succeed.

CORNISH: But you said you want to be excited, which means you're not yet.

KEN HORTON: Well, my concern has been last week or so, his decisions and people resigning off of his staff and his secretaries. I just want to see good people in office.

CORNISH: Any advice you want to offer the president to hold on to Wisconsin's 3rd District?

HORTON: Be true to your word. Keep your word. And do good. Do good to people.

CORNISH: Michelle Frankard wants that, too. She doesn't want to regret her decision. But would she count yourself a full-blown Republican from now on?

FRANKARD: I will see how it goes. And I have been watching religiously. I have been watching and keeping track of that Trump train. We'll see how this first four years goes. Matter of fact, I want to see how it is on the first half. It's got to get better. Because if it doesn't, I'll be going - I might go liberal. You know, I just might go liberal (laughter). Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.