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Republicans in swing state Wisconsin unenthused by Trump: ‘A bad candidate’ | Wisconsin

by John Jefferson
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Terri Burl has come full circle.

The local Republican party official was a founding member of Women for Trump in her corner of rural Wisconsin eight years ago when the then New York businessman’s run for president was little more than a joke to political pundits.

Burl twice campaigned enthusiastically for Donald Trump’s election but, after he lost the presidency to Joe Biden in 2020, she feared the chaos of his years in power had made him unelectable. The former social worker and substitute teacher switched her support to Florida’s governor, Ron DeSantis, and then Trump’s former UN ambassador Nikki Haley.

But now Burl is back campaigning for Trump in Oneida county.

“I don’t feel excited. But I have a bunch of ‘Never Trump’ friends and this is my argument to them: I say, you better vote for Trump or you get Biden,” she said.

“Not only that. If you don’t vote for Trump, and then he doesn’t win, he’s going to come back in four years. The boogeyman will be back. He’ll be 82 years old. Is that what you want? Just let him have his four years and then you won’t have to put up with him anymore.”

That lack of a ringing endorsement is heard among many Republicans who once voted enthusiastically for Trump, a reflection not only of doubts about the man himself after his first term in the White House but of a discernible lack of enthusiasm for a rematch of the last election.

To win, Trump is probably going to need to take Wisconsin, one of the closest swing states of recent elections. In 2016, he won the state by less than 1% of the vote and then lost it four years later by an even narrower margin.

Trump’s vote tally rose in 2020 but he was defeated by a jump in turnout, most of which went to Biden. Voters who stayed home in 2016, mostly because they didn’t like Hillary Clinton, came out four years later later because they wanted Trump out of the White House.

Seven months out from this year’s presidential election, opinion polls say Wisconsin is still a toss-up and turnout again looks to be key. If Democrats vote in large numbers again, Trump is going to need his support to hold up in Oneida and other rural counties in the upper reaches of the state.

At a rally in the Wisconsin city of Green Bay on Tuesday, Trump once again railed against his defeat four years ago and repeatedly claimed he was robbed by ballot fraud. But he also recognised the danger of ambivalence among some Republican voters if it leads them to stay home on election day in November.

“If you want to save America, then get everyone you know registered as Republican, as soon as possible, volunteer for our campaign and get out and vote in record numbers,” the former president urged the crowd.

Some Republican activists on the ground in Wisconsin doubt that Trump’s four years out of office have been enough for memories of the chaos and confrontation of his presidency to fade sufficiently. They fear that the looming criminal trials and election campaign will bring it all screaming back to again drive voters to the polls in support of Biden.

One Republican county chair, who did not wish to be named for fear of alienating Trump supporters, said the former president was a “bad candidate at this time”.

“In 2016 he was the man to break the mould. In 2020 he had the advantage of the presidency. I fear this time will be more difficult than the polling says right now. We can count on the hardcore Trump supporters, and lots of voters don’t feel good about Biden’s age. Immigration is playing very badly for the Democrats. But Trump lost in Wisconsin four years ago because he alienated so many Americans they were motivated to vote against him,” he said.

“I don’t think many Democrats are excited by Biden but my fear is that in the coming months Trump will remind them why they voted against him last time and now they have new reasons, like the supreme court ruing on abortion.”

Burl had wanted to avoid this. She was a fervent Trump supporter from the moment he came onto the political scene. In 2016, Burl lived in a neighboring county where she was chair of the local Republican party and led the charge for Trump. She fell out with the party vice-chair, a close friend, who was so appalled by Trump that she voted for Clinton.

Two years ago, Burl told the Guardian that she would back whoever the Republican nominee was this time but that “I hope it’s not Trump” because she doubted he was electable. She backed DeSantis for her party’s nomination but said she recognised that once Trump was in the 2024 Republican primary he was unstoppable.

“As soon as Trump said he was going to come back in, DeSantis should have stayed out. DeSantis should have been smart. If he would have been on Trump’s side, he’s a young man, he could have run in four years. Maybe Trump would have made him vice-president. DeSantis was greedy. He ruined it for himself. He ruined it for us,” she said.

One reading of Tuesday’s primary results in Wisconsin holds a warning for Trump. He won the Republican ballot, as expected. But 20% of the vote went to Haley, DeSantis and others who have dropped out of the race in what amounted to a show of dissent among voters the former president desperately needs.

Biden faced his own protest vote in favour of “uninstructed” in the Democratic primary over his support for Israel’s war in Gaza. But the president’s camp in Wisconsin will take heart from the fact that he won nearly 89% of the Democratic vote to Trump’s 79% of Republicans in his primary race.

Ambivalence was evident among some primary voters at Rhinelander’s polling station. A woman who gave her name only as Mari said she voted for Trump in 2016 and Biden four years ago. She can’t decide which way she will go this year.

“I don’t care for Trump as a person. I like a lot of his policies but I don’t think he sets a good example for our country,” she said.

But she has just as many doubts about Biden, who she describes as “past his prime”.

Mari said that she thinks Biden will probably win in November but she is not alone in being frustrated at facing a rerun of the 2020 election.

Jim Schuh, a bread company manager, feels obliged to vote for Trump as a Republican but is not enthusiastic about it after the former president’s first term in office.

“I’m not a big fan of Trump but I think he wins because people are just so frustrated with Biden,” he said.

Schuh, like many Republicans, singled out the immigration crisis, played up heavily in conservative news media, as a major issue that will defeat Biden in Wisconsin, even though the state is far from the US-Mexico border and few migrants make it the 1,500 miles to Rhinelander.

“Trump is good on the border. He’ll build the wall,” he said.

Burl now manages social media for the Oneida county Republican party and is gearing up to campaign hard for Trump whatever the challenges. But she said it will not be made any easier by the state of Republican politics.

“I’m kind of mad at the Republicans about abortion. I don’t think the supreme court should have been involved. The minute they got involved, the Democrats can use that as fodder about Republicans. If you vote for Republicans you’re not going to get control of your own body. It motivates Democrats to go vote,” she said.

“I can’t stand abortion but you can’t just totally ban it. There were Republicans who wanted a compromise.”

Burl also thinks the antics of hard-right Republican members of Congress such as Matt Gaetz and Marjorie Taylor Greene are undermining Trump’s campaign.

She’s such a wackadoodle. What do these people want? These are Republicans. I can’t even deal with these people. I can’t take them seriously. They’re ruining it for us because then everybody’s looking at them and saying, ‘Is this who you want to lead?’ They are damaging to the party,” she said.

But Burl thinks that some of the issues Democrats hope will play in Biden’s favour are actually going to help Trump.

The former president faces a string of criminal trials for charges ranging from inciting the January 6 riot at the Capitol to illegally handling classified documents and for financial fraud in New York.

Democrats may calculate that if any of the cases come to trial before the election, they will remind voters of Trump’s failings. Burl suspects that in her part of the world the prosecutions will reinforce his claims to be a victim of an establishment conspiracy.

Still she recognises that Trump has potentially fatal flaws, not least his belligerence and vindictiveness.

I’m still a Trumper but I still feel the same way about how he behaves, like on his Easter message. Instead of getting all angry and full rage, he could have said, ‘Let’s love our neighbours.’ He could have even been humble. He could have admitted he made made mistakes in how he treated people and said, ‘I do want to be better for the people of this nation.’ I would have loved something like that,” she said.

Biden v Trump: What’s in store for the US and the world?

On Thursday 2 May, 3-4.15pm ET, join Tania Branigan, David Smith, Mehdi Hasan and Tara Setmayer for the inside track on the people, the ideas and the events that might shape the US election campaign. Book tickets here or at theguardian.live

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