Wisconsin’s Fox Valley Is Key to Presidential Election


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.

“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.”

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.”

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