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With Trump Tapping Into Economic Fears, Wisconsin Turns Red For First Time Since 1984


Until Tuesday, a Republican presidential candidate hadn't won the state of Wisconsin since Ronald Reagan did it back in 1984. Donald Trump eked out a very narrow victory there, adding to his tally of Rust Belt states that turned red this year and put him over the top. NPR's Melissa Block went to a traditionally blue Wisconsin county to ask why.

MELISSA BLOCK, BYLINE: Kenosha County is the kind of place Democrats didn't used to have to worry about. The last time it went for a Republican for president was 1972, Richard Nixon. And now, in 2016, Donald Trump - he won Kenosha County by 255 votes.

GABE NUDO: Make America great - that's what we need.

BLOCK: Elated Trump voter Gabe Nudo has stopped by the Republican Party campaign office here to pick up a post-victory Trump-Pence T-shirt. He's retired, used to work on the line at American Motors assembling cars, a former union guy.

NUDO: Originally, I'm from Italy. So I'm an immigrant - legal immigrant.

NUDO: Nudo likes Trump's hard line on illegal immigration, calls Obamacare bad news, thinks Hillary Clinton should be in jail.

ERIN DECKER: People love the Hillary for prison buttons in the fantastic orange background with the prison bars (laughter).

BLOCK: Erin Decker is the Republican Party chair for Kenosha County. She's excited about most of Trump's promises and shrugs off some of his volatile rhetoric. For example, his signature pledge to build a wall and make Mexico pay for it - nah.

DECKER: I don't think we can be building the Great Wall of China at our southern border. I believe that was campaign - you know, get your base fired up.

BLOCK: Here in the industrial Midwest, Decker says voters heard an economic message that tapped into their fears.

DECKER: We're a manufacturing, blue-collar state. And the blue-collar workers - what Trump was saying resounded with them.

BLOCK: Kenosha County, in the southeast corner of Wisconsin, sits between Milwaukee and Chicago. It's anchored by the city of Kenosha, a former manufacturing hub on Lake Michigan. The car industry that used to be the pride of Kenosha, with union jobs that reliably fueled the Democratic machine - it's all gone.

BOB WIRCH: This is the former site of American Motors, and then it was Chrysler.

BLOCK: Now we drive past an empty swath of land the size of 80 football fields. Our tour guide is Democratic State Senator Bob Wirch. Back in the day, he worked at another factory here that's long gone, American Brass.

WIRCH: I was a college kid, came in looking for a job. And the old-timers shook hands with me. And I noticed how many of them were missing fingers. And they said, oh, what job do you want? I said, I think I'll be sweeper.

BLOCK: He smiles and wiggles his 10 fingers. New business has come to Kenosha County. A gigantic Amazon fulfillment center sprawls alongside the interstate. But those thousand-plus jobs are non-union. And Senator Wirch has seen Wisconsin unions take a pounding. Last year, Republican Governor Scott Walker signed a bill making Wisconsin a right-to-work state. And earlier, he pushed through controversial legislation that ended collective bargaining for public sector workers. Wirch says those measures and the decline of industry here have hurt Democrats at the ballot box.

WIRCH: It ain't like it used to be. It used to be thousands of machinists union people and steel workers and UAW. And they could just get them out to vote, and it was a powerful thing.

BLOCK: Wirch says Democrats made a fatal mistake assuming they had Wisconsin in the bag. Hillary Clinton didn't visit Wisconsin once after the primary here, which she lost to Bernie Sanders by double digits.

At the Kenosha Ice Arena, we find Jacki Olsen (ph) watching her son at nighttime peewee hockey practice. She voted twice for Obama - this time, for Trump. It's not that she feels negative about Clinton, she says.

JACKI OLSEN: I would just like to see something change. I felt like the Democrats just couldn't get anything done.

BLOCK: This echoes a lot of what we heard from Trump voters here, a rejection of the status quo. Few voters could point to a specific way they think their life will change for the better under a President Trump.

OLSEN: We're just kind of hoping that, you know, as crazy as Trump is, that maybe he's just got the guts to actually make things happen. We're hoping - but we're hoping it won't go too far the other way and (laughter) make too many people mad.

BLOCK: Olsen says let's give this a try and see if it works. One thing's for sure - next time around, Democrats won't be taking Wisconsin for granted.

Melissa Block NPR News, Kenosha. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

As special correspondent and guest host of NPR's news programs, Melissa Block brings her signature combination of warmth and incisive reporting. Her work over the decades has earned her journalism's highest honors, and has made her one of NPR's most familiar and beloved voices.
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