They hope for a “blue wave” in November, but Democrats in deeply red Walworth County know they’re swimming upstream.
No Democratic candidate for president has won in Walworth County since at least 1960. It was one of three Wisconsin counties that swung for Republican presidential candidate Barry Goldwater in 1964, and President Donald Trump swept Hillary Clinton by 20 percentage points in 2016.
It’s one of the reddest counties in Wisconsin, but Walworth County Democrats believe local support is spreading.
Membership has doubled in the last two years, the party says. It recently opened its second office in Whitewater, and volunteers are rolling out an aggressive door-knocking campaign they hope will lift turnout in a year when Democratic enthusiasm is growing nationally.
“We think knocking on doors, looking people in the eye as best you can, is how we’re going to win this election,” Anita Loch said. “You’ve got people saying, ‘You know, I’m tired of being in the closet. I’m putting my sign out this time. I’m getting out there to knock on doors because it’s that important.’”
Loch is the elections committee chairwoman for the Democratic Party of Walworth County. She said the local party has made thousands of phone calls in preparation for November and spread its ground operation to each municipality in the county, something it hasn’t done in previous elections.
She said the party is pushing its Assembly candidates in hopes of flipping the Republican-held 31st and 32nd Assembly districts that cover large swaths of Walworth County.
The strategy is part of coordinated campaign from the state party. Loch said volunteers go door-knocking weekly and carry literature for each local and state race. They pitch Democratic candidates—from U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin to state Rep. Don Vruwink, D-Milton—to independents, leaning Republicans and strong Democratic voters.
Scott Cashion, who lives in the town of Richmond, says the strategy is working. Cashion joined the county party after the 2016 elections and is now its vice chairman and one of its most active members. He said the party’s goal is to churn out votes for Democrats and bump turnout by at least 10 percent from 2016.
“I guess I’d compare it to an old-fashioned barn raising. You’re getting people together. Folks are meetin’ and greetin’,” Cashion said. “I think everybody’s aware that 2016 didn’t work. It affected everybody down ticket, and there’s a concerted effort to make sure what we do this year, the energy that we spend, is different than 2016.”
A giant hurdle
Make no mistake: Democrats face a steep climb in Walworth County.
But local party members and the state party see a silver lining this year, and they point to Senate District 10 and the election of Supreme Court Judge Rebecca Dallet.
Senate District 10, a district in northwestern Wisconsin, flipped to the Democrats for the first time since 1996 in a special election earlier this year. It’s a district Trump won with 55.3 percent of the vote in 2016, but Democrat Patty Schachtner snagged the same percent of the vote and beat the Republican in a Jan. 16 special election.
Democrats also celebrated Dallet’s election in April. Though she technically was a nonpartisan candidate, Democrats say she narrowed the gap in Walworth County when she finished 8 percentage points behind conservative Supreme Court candidate Michael Screnock. She even won the 31st Assembly District, a seat currently held by Rep. Amy Loudenbeck, R-Clinton.
Both results could signal energized Democratic support in Walworth County, members say. They also could have implications on the 1st Congressional District election. That race is targeted by Democrats nationally, and Loch called it a “high-priority” for the local party.
All of Walworth County lies in the 1st District except Whitewater, which is in the 5th Congressional District. House Speaker Paul Ryan has held the 1st District seat for nearly 20 years. Democrat Randy Bryce, an iron worker, and Republican attorney Bryan Steil are running to replace to him.
Barry Burden, a political scientist at UW-Madison, said the 1st District favors Republicans by 5 percentage points based on the last two presidential elections. That means Democrats need at least a five-point swing in each county in the district to have a chance at winning.
But a five-point Democratic swing in Walworth County might not mean much in the 1st District. Walworth County has a much smaller population and fewer Democrats than neighboring Kenosha, Racine and Milwaukee counties, so Democratic turnout outside the county will matter more in the 1st District race, Burden said.
A close race in Walworth County isn’t unprecedented. The county almost tilted blue in the 2008 election when President Barack Obama won the 1st District. Obama finished less than 3 percentage points behind Republican nominee John McCain that year—about 11 percentage points higher than Clinton in 2016 and the closest Walworth County had come to voting for a Democrat in decades.
Whether or not Walworth County can make similar gains and narrow the gap this year is unknown. But local members are optimistic, and they have the support of the state party, which is targeting rural areas such as Walworth County.
“We’re seeing Democrats out-performing expectations even in the reddest parts of the state,” Courtney Beyer, a spokeswoman for the Democratic Party of Wisconsin, wrote in an email to The Gazette. “We made an early off-year investment in our organizing program so that we’d have organizers on the ground talking to voters months before the election. It used to be that our organizing program shut down after the election.”
Democrats aren’t alone in ramping up for the November election in Walworth County. A recent push has come from the county’s Republican Party, which opened its second office in the county Saturday.
Like the Democrats, their new office is in Whitewater, the bluest pocket in the county.
“We’ve known that Whitewater has been a relatively blue area,” Chris Goebel said. “We’re going to do everything we can to win.”
Goebel, the Republican Party of Walworth County chairman, said he is “cautiously optimistic” this year, and he said the local party is not changing its operation because of a possible blue wave or surge of Democrats this November.
He said he is optimistic given the primary turnout in Walworth County in August. This year, the county’s overall turnout increased by 7,235 votes in the August primary. The Democrats secured about 4,287 more votes in the gubernatorial primary than they did in the 2014 primary, while the Republicans secured 3,226 more.
Even with energized Democrats, the primary turnout this year still shows a wide margin between the Walworth County parties—Republicans cast almost 2,600 more votes in the gubernatorial primary than Democrats. Goebel said that could mean the Republicans are trending to another victory in the county in November.
Goebel said local Republicans are enthusiastic given the swarm of candidates on the ballot. With Ryan’s retirement from Congress and contested U.S. Senate and gubernatorial races falling on the same year, he said Republicans are keenly aware of the candidates and are energized for the November election.
“I think we’re going to prevail,” he said. “We’re going to be doing what we’ve been doing. We have job to do.”
Still, Democrats say they sense a backlash to the decades-long Republican stronghold in the county.
During their door-knocking campaigns, Cashion said, canvassers talk up health care, low wages and the new Foxconn facility in Mount Pleasant. He said they point to education funding and poor road conditions to strike a chord with potential voters and sway them to Democratic candidates—and hopefully chip away at a nearly impossible deficit.
“There was a sense that it didn’t’ matter if you voted in Walworth County because it’s so red,” Cashion said. “But we’ve kind of gone forward saying we’re going to talk about Democratic policies. We’re going to go knock on doors. We’re not going to whisper, ‘I’m a Democrat’ anymore.
“It’s not even necessarily changing minds. It’s getting people to go vote and to make their vote count. And that’s why we’re all here.”