Dunn County volunteers take part in a training even at the Mabel Tainter Center for the Arts in Menomonie. (Photo by Jim Zons)
Dunn County volunteers take part in a training even at the Mabel Tainter Center for the Arts in Menomonie. (Photo by Jim Zons)

Weekend trainings, canvasses abound. Both parties sense opportunities.

For years Laurel Fraher has followed politics, trying her best to keep up on the news of the day and how it impacted her and her family. 

But the mother of two, a native of Ontario, Canada who moved to Menomonie from the Twin Cities eight years ago, didn’t want to be directly involved in the political scene. 

“I cared about what was happening, but I didn’t want to be a part of it,” she said. “It just wasn’t something I did.”

However, inspired in part by her 12-year-old daughter Lily’s interest in politics, Fraher said she has decided to take a more active role this year. She was among nearly 100 people who attended a 2020 election kickoff convention Saturday at the Mabel Tainter Center for the Arts in Menomonie sponsored by the Dunn County Democratic Party.

That relatively large gathering 11 months before the Nov. 3 fall election is a sign of intense interest among volunteers and activists in a high-stakes election year in which political pundits expect Wisconsin to play a key role in choosing the next U.S. president, Democratic and Republican leaders in the state’s 3rd Congressional District said.

Bill Hogseth, chairman of the Dunn County Democrats, said turnout at Saturday’s event — intended to train and motivate attendees — is a sign of high interest in upcoming political races. 

“There are a lot of unsettled folks out there concerned about what is going on, about this Trump era,” Hogseth, who lives in rural Elk Mound, said following the election workshop. “That’s how you can get 100 people here on a weekend day in January in Menomonie.”

Bill Hogseth leads a discussion among volunteers who plan to reach out to voters on behalf of progressive candidates in Dunn County. (Photo by Jim Zons)

Likewise, Bill Feehan, 3rd Congressional District Republican Party chairman, said many volunteers are signing up to support Republican candidates in the district. 

“I’ve never seen the number of people looking to get involved that I am seeing now,” Feehan, of La Crosse, said. “I’m hearing from people I’ve never heard from before, people who haven’t been involved in politics previously.”

The 3rd Congressional District, and Dunn County specifically, are considered by many as a bellwether in this year’s election. The mostly rural county of about 45,000 in west-central Wisconsin was one of 206 in the U.S. in which voters supported President Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012 but favored President Donald Trump in 2016. Trump won the county by more than 2,000 votes, helping him carry the state by about 22,000 votes out of three million cast.     

With so much on the line and Wisconsin garnering national media headlines for its importance this election year, more people, like Fraher, are choosing to play more active roles. Grace Stolen, a 20-year-old who moved from Wausau to Menomonie in August to attend UW-Stout, said she is frustrated by Republicans’ stances on such issues as gerrymandering and climate change and has decided to step up politically. 

“I don’t want people to write us off as Trump Country,” she said. “I need to get involved.”

Noah Reif, northeastern organizer for Citizen Action Wisconsin stationed in Green Bay, said a higher number of progressives across the state are motivated to get Democrats elected as president and to state legislative positions. 

“We are seeing more people getting involved,” said Reif, who ran unsuccessfully as a Democrat in the 88th Assembly District in 2016 and volunteered for the Bernie Sanders campaign that year.

Citizen Action is attempting to attract new progressive voters, Reif said, in part by focusing on such issues as affordable health care and climate change that matter to many. The organization is seeking to build a voter base by “reaching out to people who have been frozen out of politics.”  

Republicans are seeking new voters too, Feehan said, noting that in the 3rd Congressional District, voter registration numbers are especially low in La Crosse and Buffalo counties. For Trump to win Wisconsin as he did in 2016, Feehan said, the president must carry even more votes in the state’s rural regions. Democrats defeated Gov. Scott Walker in 2018 in large part by boosting the vote in the state’s urban centers.

“We need to find more new, rural voters, and we think we can do that,” Feehan said.  

Larry Ford thinks so too. The 36-year-old truck driver who lives south of Eau Claire acknowledged that Trump hasn’t followed through on all of his promises. “But he appeals to people like me who think neither traditional Republicans or Democrats really work to help us,” Ford said.    

People attending Saturday’s political training event in Menomonie had a decidedly different reaction to Trump. As they rotated through workshops with topics such as, “How to Host a House Meeting,” “How to Communicate Our Values,” and “How to Organize a Canvass,” many said the actions of the president and other Republicans in recent years have pushed them into this kind of neighbor to neighbor political activism. 

“I feel I can no longer sit by, watch our current political climate continue and do nothing,” retired school district Superintendent Mary Baier, who lives near Elmwood, said during a lunch break. “It is important that I do my part to make things better … I have to step up for my grandchildren.”

Ann Francis speaks to progressive volunteers at a training event in Menomonie on Jan. 11. (Photo by Jim Zons)

Ann Francis moved with her husband from Denver, Colo., to Eau Claire in 2017 and got involved in that city’s Democratic politics. She trained people at Saturday’s event about how to campaign effectively.

“What you’re seeing here today is more people wanting to get involved,” Francis said. “People realize they have to get involved if they want change.”