MINOCQUA, Wis. — When coronavirus instances started to spike in Wisconsin this fall, Rob Swearingen saved his restaurant open and let prospects and workers resolve whether or not they wished to put on masks.
Mr. Swearingen, a Republican seeking his fifth term in the Wisconsin State Assembly, didn’t require different workers at his restaurant in Rhinelander to be examined after a waitress and a bartender contracted the virus as a result of, he mentioned, no one from the native well being division instructed it was essential.
Kirk Bangstad, Mr. Swearingen’s Democratic opponent, took the other method on the brewpub he owns in Minocqua, 30 miles away. He has served prospects solely outdoor, and when a teenage waiter grew to become contaminated after attending a celebration, Mr. Bangstad shut down for a protracted weekend and required all workers to get examined.
Mr. Bangstad has since turned his complete marketing campaign right into a referendum on how Republicans have dealt with the coronavirus. On Fb, he has served as a city shamer, posting lists of restaurants and stores in Wisconsin’s Northwoods which have disregarded state limits on seating capability and don’t require masks.
With simply days till the election, the competition for Mr. Swearingen’s Meeting seat on this calmly populated space within the Northwoods of Wisconsin serves as a microcosm for the way in which coronavirus politics are taking part in out throughout 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, however his effort to make the marketing campaign a referendum on the virus echoes that of former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., who has sought to make President Trump’s dealing with of the pandemic the central issue in the presidential contest.
Mr. Bangstad, a 43-year-old Harvard-educated former skilled opera singer, moved again to Wisconsin six years in the past from Manhattan, the place he was a expertise advisor and served because the coverage director for Anthony Weiner’s 2013 mayoral campaign. Like Mr. Biden, he has eschewed conventional campaigning. He has moved his complete effort on-line, together with in e-mail and on the Facebook page of his brewpub, the Minocqua Brewing Firm.
However in contrast to the previous vice chairman, Mr. Bangstad has made little effort to win over voters who aren’t already appalled by Republicans’ dealing with of the coronavirus. A lot of them, he mentioned, are being duped by false or deceptive statements by the president and the conservative information media.
“A whole lot of them, I really feel, haven’t been geared up with the instruments of media literacy or vital pondering expertise to have the ability to discern in the event that they’re being informed one thing that doesn’t fairly jell or will not be true,” he mentioned throughout an interview this week at his shuttered restaurant overlooking Lake Minocqua.
Oneida County, which incorporates Minocqua and Rhinelander, the place Mr. Swearingen operates the Al-Gen Dinner Club and has lived his complete life, has a virus fee almost twice the state common over the previous two weeks.
Sustain with Election 2020
Scott Haskins, whose spouse, Pamela, is a waitress on the Al-Gen, is among the many county’s current 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 4 days after his spouse, in line with his daughter, Kelly Schulz.
Two days later, Mr. Haskins suffered a stroke and died.
“The day after my dad handed, Governor Evers put within the 25 p.c capability restrict, they usually weren’t abiding by it,” Ms. Schulz mentioned of the Al-Gen. “Folks had been posting photos of themselves there on Fb and it was fairly busy for a Friday evening.”
Republicans who management the state legislature this month efficiently sued Mr. Evers to overturn the capacity limits on bars and restaurants he ordered. In Oneida County, native sheriffs and city police departments weren’t implementing them anyway.
Earlier than successful election to the Meeting, Mr. Swearingen, 57, was the president of the Tavern League of Wisconsin, the highly effective lobbying group for the state’s bars. He fought the state’s efforts to ban smoking indoors at companies, elevate the consuming age to 21 from 18 and enhance the authorized blood alcohol restrict to drive.
He mentioned his restaurant will not be accountable for workers who caught the coronavirus. Nobody from the native well being division ever referred to as with questions, he mentioned, and no contact tracers contacted the restaurant. Mr. Swearingen mentioned he has not had a check himself.
“There’s been no connection to the restaurant to all these instances,” he mentioned throughout an interview within the eating room of the Al-Gen, which is bedecked with taxidermied heads of deer and black bears. “These individuals are part-time, coming from totally different jobs and various things.”
Of all of the locations the place Democrats barely bothered to compete in 2016, Wisconsin’s Northwoods might have been probably the most uncared for. Not solely did Hillary Clinton skip Wisconsin altogether, county Democrats on this area didn’t even have yard indicators to distribute, not that there was a lot demand for them.
Mrs. Clinton was a “polarizing’’ candidate, mentioned Matt Michalsen, a highschool social research trainer who ran in opposition to Mr. Swearingen in 2016. “Personally, did I assist her? No.”
4 years later, Mr. Bangstad has few expectations that he’ll win. He sees his marketing campaign largely as an effort to extend Democratic turnout for Mr. Biden and reduce into Mr. Trump’s margins by focusing consideration on the affect of the coronavirus on northern Wisconsin.
Mr. Bangstad wrapped the facet of his restaurant in a giant Biden-Harris sign that attracted the ire of the Oneida County Board, which despatched a letter informing him that it exceeded the allowable measurement of 32 sq. toes. After Mr. Bangstad used the fracas to boost cash and get extra consideration for himself within the native press, the board backed down.
On the identical time, the Biden marketing campaign and native Democrats have put much more sources into northern Wisconsin than they did 4 years in the past. There are twice as many organizers targeted on the realm than in 2016. And although the Clinton marketing campaign swore off yard indicators as an pointless annoyance, the state occasion has made efforts to get them in each yard that might take one.
“We distributed roughly 50 Hillary yard indicators 4 years in the past, and we’re at greater than 1,200 up to now for Joe,” mentioned Jane Nicholson, the occasion chairwoman in Vilas County, simply north of Oneida County.
There’s some proof that Mr. Biden is making up floor. A ballot taken for Mr. Bangstad’s marketing campaign this month discovered Mr. Trump main Mr. Biden within the district by 5 share factors — a far cry from his 25-point margin of victory in 2016. The identical survey discovered Mr. Swearingen forward by 12 factors, lower than half his 26-point margin over Mr. Michalsen 4 years in the past.
Mr. Trump gained Wisconsin in 2016 by lower than 23,000 votes statewide. His hole in Mr. Swearingen’s district alone was 14,000 votes.
“If we’re within the low 40s there, that signifies that we now have blocked Trump’s path to pulling within the votes that he’d have to cancel out different areas of the state,” mentioned Ben Wikler, the chairman of the Democratic Celebration of Wisconsin.
The Meeting race has engendered damage emotions and worsened political divisions in Minocqua, a city of about 4,000 full-time residents. Down the road from the Minocqua Brewing Firm, Tracy Lin Grigus, a Trump supporter who owns the Shade Tree bookstore, shook her head at Mr. Bangstad’s makes an attempt to disgrace native companies.
“On his Fb, he’s calling all of us up right here idiots, like a mini Joe Biden,’’ mentioned Ms. Grigus, who doesn’t put on a masks in her retailer and doesn’t ask her prospects to take action. “It’s insulting to folks that share the area with him and different enterprise house owners. He’s like the one one on this city and surrounding cities that went this far.”
Throughout Oneida Road, the primary drag by means of Minocqua’s small downtown, Casie Oldenhoff, an assistant supervisor on the Monkey Enterprise T-shirt store, the place indicators instruct prospects to put on a masks, mentioned Mr. Trump was guilty for the present wave of the pandemic.
“He’s simply not caring for us,” Ms. Oldenhoff mentioned. “He doesn’t care about what’s happening with the pandemic.”
Mr. Swearingen mentioned he had little doubt that Mr. Trump would just do as effectively within the Northwoods on Tuesday as he did in 2016. Enthusiasm for the president is increased, he mentioned, as evidenced by the common boat and car parades adorned with Trump flags and carrying younger males involved foremost a couple of Biden administration taking away their weapons.
However he mentioned had by no means been concerned in a marketing campaign as ugly as his personal this 12 months.
“We’ve been focused by my opponent as a den of Covid and all types of rumors in Fb,’’ he mentioned. “I’ve by no means fairly needed to struggle in opposition to Fb in an election. He went after a few different bars within the space, and one of many bar house owners was furious that that bar was on the checklist. It’s like, ‘Nicely, who’re these individuals? It’s the masks police or one thing.’”
For Mr. Bangstad, shaming Mr. Swearingen and different Republicans who’ve fought in opposition to public well being tips is precisely the purpose.
“In case you’re a citizen on this state, and there’s one department of presidency that’s attempting to maintain individuals wholesome from Covid, and you’ve got the legislative department and the judicial department attempting to stymie him each single time he does it, it’s the saddest factor you’ve ever seen,” he mentioned. “As a Wisconsinite, I’m simply utterly ashamed.”
Andy Mills and Luke Vander Ploeg contributed reporting.