Monday, November 23, 2020

How Virus Politics Divided a Conservative Town in Wisconsin’s North

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MINOCQUA, Wis. — When coronavirus cases began to spike in Wisconsin this fall, Rob Swearingen kept his restaurant open and let customers and employees decide whether they wanted to wear masks.

Mr. Swearingen, a Republican seeking his fifth term in the Wisconsin State Assembly, didn’t require other employees at his restaurant in Rhinelander to be tested after a waitress and a bartender contracted the virus because, he said, nobody from the local health department suggested it was necessary.

Kirk Bangstad, Mr. Swearingen’s Democratic opponent, took the opposite approach at the brewpub he owns in Minocqua, 30 miles away. He has served customers only outdoors, and when a teenage waiter became infected after attending a party, Mr. Bangstad shut down for a long weekend and required 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 has served as a town shamer, posting lists of restaurants and stores in Wisconsin’s Northwoods that have disregarded state limits on seating capacity and don’t require masks.

With just days until the election, the contest for Mr. Swearingen’s Assembly seat in this lightly populated area in the Northwoods of Wisconsin serves as a microcosm for the way coronavirus politics are playing out across America. Mr. Bangstad is unlikely to prevail in a Republican-heavy district that covers parts of four counties stretching south from Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, but his effort to make the campaign a referendum on the virus echoes that of former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., who has sought to make President Trump’s handling of the pandemic the central issue in the presidential contest.

Mr. Bangstad, a 43-year-old Harvard-educated former professional opera singer, moved back to Wisconsin six years ago from Manhattan, where he was a technology consultant and served as the policy director for Anthony Weiner’s 2013 mayoral campaign. Like Mr. Biden, he has eschewed traditional campaigning. He has moved his entire effort online, including in email and on the Facebook page of his brewpub, the Minocqua Brewing Company.

But unlike the former vice president, Mr. Bangstad has made little effort to win over voters who aren’t already appalled by Republicans’ handling of the coronavirus. Many of them, he said, are being duped by false or misleading statements by the president and the conservative news media.

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

Oneida County, which includes Minocqua and Rhinelander, where Mr. Swearingen operates the Al-Gen Dinner Club and has lived his entire life, has a virus rate nearly twice the state average over the past two weeks.

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Scott Haskins, whose wife, Pamela, is a waitress at the Al-Gen, is among the county’s recent fatalities. Ms. Haskins contracted the virus after working a restaurant shift in mid-September and was hospitalized in early October. Mr. Haskins, 63, checked into the 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 dad passed, Governor Evers put in the 25 percent capacity limit, and they weren’t abiding by it,” Ms. Schulz said of the Al-Gen. “People were posting pictures of themselves there on Facebook and it was pretty busy for a Friday night.”

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

Before winning election to the Assembly, Mr. Swearingen, 57, was the president of the Tavern League of Wisconsin, the powerful lobbying group for the state’s bars. He fought the state’s efforts to ban smoking indoors at businesses, lift the drinking age to 21 from 18 and lower the legal blood alcohol limit to drive.

He said his restaurant is not responsible for employees who caught the coronavirus. No one from the local health department ever called with questions, he said, and no contact tracers contacted the restaurant. Mr. Swearingen said he has not had a test himself.

“There’s been no connection to the restaurant to all these cases,” he said during an interview in the dining room of the Al-Gen, which is bedecked with taxidermied heads of deer and black bears. “These people are part-time, coming from different jobs and different things.”

Of all the places where Democrats barely bothered to compete in 2016, Wisconsin’s Northwoods may have been the most neglected. Not only did Hillary Clinton skip Wisconsin altogether, county Democrats in this region didn’t even have yard signs to distribute, not that there was much demand for them.

Mrs. 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 few expectations that he will win. He sees his campaign largely as an effort to increase Democratic turnout for Mr. Biden and cut into Mr. Trump’s margins by focusing 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 attracted the ire of the Oneida County Board, which sent a letter informing him that it exceeded the allowable size of 32 square feet. After Mr. Bangstad used the fracas to raise money and get more attention for himself in the local press, the board backed down.

At the same time, the Biden campaign and local Democrats have put far more resources into northern Wisconsin than they did four years ago. There are twice as many organizers focused on the area than in 2016. And though the Clinton campaign swore off yard signs as an unnecessary annoyance, the state party has made efforts to get them in every yard that would take one.

“We distributed approximately 50 Hillary yard signs four years ago, and we’re at more than 1,200 so far for Joe,” said Jane Nicholson, the party chairwoman in Vilas County, just north of Oneida County.

There’s some evidence that Mr. Biden is making up ground. A poll taken for Mr. Bangstad’s campaign this month found Mr. Trump leading Mr. Biden in the district by five percentage points — a far cry from his 25-point margin of victory in 2016. The same survey found Mr. Swearingen ahead by 12 points, less than half 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 the low 40s there, that means that we have blocked Trump’s path to pulling in the votes that he’d need to cancel out other areas of the state,” said Ben Wikler, the chairman of the Democratic Party of Wisconsin.

The Assembly race has engendered hurt feelings and worsened 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 the Shade Tree bookstore, shook her head at Mr. Bangstad’s attempts to shame local businesses.

“On his Facebook, he’s calling all of us up here idiots, like a 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 people that share the space with him and other business owners. He’s like the only one in this town and surrounding towns that went this far.”

Across Oneida Street, the main drag through Minocqua’s small downtown, Casie Oldenhoff, an assistant manager at the Monkey Business T-shirt shop, where signs instruct customers to wear a mask, said Mr. Trump was to blame for the current wave of the pandemic.

“He’s just not taking care of us,” Ms. Oldenhoff said. “He doesn’t care about what’s going on with the pandemic.”

Mr. Swearingen said he had little doubt that Mr. Trump would do just as well in the Northwoods on Tuesday as he did in 2016. Enthusiasm for the president is higher, he said, as evidenced by the regular boat and car parades adorned with Trump flags and carrying young men concerned foremost about a Biden administration taking away their guns.

But he said he had never been involved in a campaign as ugly as his own this year.

“We’ve been targeted by my opponent as a den of Covid and all sorts of rumors in Facebook,’’ he said. “I’ve never quite had to fight against Facebook in an election. He went after a couple of other bars in the area, and one of the bar owners was livid that that bar was on the list. It’s like, ‘Well, who are these people? It’s the mask police or something.’”

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

“If you’re a citizen in this state, and there’s one branch of government that’s trying to keep people healthy from Covid, and you have the legislative branch and the judicial branch trying to stymie him every single time he does it, it’s the saddest thing you’ve ever seen,” he said. “As a Wisconsinite, I’m just completely ashamed.”

Andy Mills and Luke Vander Ploeg contributed reporting.

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