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Politics creates economic illusion in Houdini’s hometown

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Politics creates economic illusion in Houdini’s hometown

APPLETON, Wis. — Nothing can shake Scott Rice’s faith that President Donald Trump will save the U.S. economy — not seeing businesses close or friends furloughed, not even his own hellish bout with the novel coronavirus.

Rice reveres the president the way Wisconsin loves the Green Bay Packers. He has painted “T-R-U-M-P” on his lawn, spelled it out with Christmas lights on his roof and painted it on his steel-toed shoes.

He was also a virus skeptic, believing it was a hoax meant to hurt Trump and the economy. But then the disease seeped into the paper mill where he works, and he was stricken, suddenly losing his appetite, even for his favourite Taco Bell. He lay in bed, feverish, drenched in sweat. Two air-conditioner units didn’t cool him. His body seemed at war with itself.

After 16 days at home, Rice told his co-workers that the disease was scary and real. But Trump held onto his vote for one reason: The stock market was climbing.

“The 401(k)s, just the economy,” Rice said. “He got jobs going. Just accumulated a lot of jobs, being a businessman.”

Rice’s belief represents the foundation of Trump’s hopes — that Americans believe the economy is strong enough to deliver him a second term.

But in Appleton, a predominately white city of 75,000 people along the Fox River, the health of the economy isn’t judged on jobs numbers, personal bank accounts or union contracts. Instead, it’s viewed through partisan lenses — filtered through the facts voters want to see and hear, and those they don’t.

By almost any measure, Trump’s promises of an economic revival in places like Appleton have gone unfulfilled. The area has lost about 8,000 jobs since he was elected.

Even before the pandemic, Wisconsin’s economy was fragile, as job losses began in August 2019 and a recovery in hiring had just begun when the virus struck. The state that is vital for Trump’s victory had more jobs a decade ago when the country was still ailing from the Great Recession than it did in July.

While supporters like Rice are immovable, others have had enough. President Barack Obama won here in 2012, but voters flipped to Trump four years later, and Trump cannot afford much erosion in a state that he won by only 22,000 votes out of more than 2.8 million.

Democratic candidate Joe Biden holds a slight lead over Trump in the latest Marquette Law School poll of Wisconsin voters. Trump’s disapproval rating has risen to 54% from 49% at the start the year. But 52% of Wisconsin voters applaud Trump on the economy, while 56% dislike his handling of the pandemic that pulled the nation into recession.

Even Rice concedes that the economy is not just an argument for Trump — it’s also an argument against him. His 20-year-old daughter, Cassidy, tells him so. She is studying public health at George Washington University and will cast her first presidential vote for Biden.

“The fact that there was a pandemic and the fact that it had those consequences on the economy should be an eye opener, like, hey, maybe we’re not doing this correctly,” she said.

___

Trump won the presidency by wringing tens of thousands of votes out of small towns and medium-size cities across Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania.

He did it in places like Appleton. The city of stone and brick hugs the Fox River, its currents powering the smoke-stacked paper mills that built fortunes. Steamboats and trains brought the trappings of Victorian-era comfort. The nation’s second co-educational college, Lawrence University, occupies 84 acres at the edge of downtown. The end of World War II brought a suburban buildout, and teenagers increasingly left dairy farms for union jobs at mills and foundries.

But as the need for paper waned two decades ago, the city began a slow evolution. Now condos, cafes, offices and a jogging trail line the riverbank.

The trail ends downtown at Houdini Plaza, a monument to the city’s most famous offspring, illusionist Harry Houdini. His words are inscribed on the monument where his childhood home once stood: “What the eyes see and the ears hear, the mind believes.”

There may be no better explanation of American politics in this confounding moment.

Trump voters listen to his cheerleading for the economy and believe the businessman president has worked his magic. Many write off the pandemic as a speed bump for accelerating prosperity. Biden’s backers see an illusion — an economy that was recovering under Obama, but now, with the pandemic, is trying to crawl back to health, with no real plan from Trump.

The two realities are clear in national surveys. In August, 80% of Democrats call economic conditions “poor,” while 63% of Republicans describe them as “good” in a survey conducted by The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research.

In Appleton, perhaps the only shared view is a deep anxiety about the future. Restaurants and bars worry about customers vanishing once cooler temperatures return. The high costs of childcare and health insurance make it hard to attract workers, despite the downturn.

People cannot even agree on the terms of the economic debate to come up with a solution.

“What we’ve done with politics is gotten into a tribal war that looks only at elections when we should be looking at policies and results,” said John Burke, CEO and chairman of Wisconsin-based Trek Bicycles, one of the state’s most prominent business leaders.

How enduring the divide will be is one of the central tests of the presidential election. Will emotional ties to Trump override assessments of his job performance?

___

After 2016, local Democrats wasted no time mourning. Lee Snodgrass became chair of the local party and began a blitz of door-knocking to build up volunteers and voters, a task that led her into areas that were firmly for Trump.

As a candidate now for the state legislature, she has tried to bridge the partisan divide, but often finds few Republican takers.

“It’s like watching a car accident in slow motion,” said Snodgrass. “The behaviour and choices that people make in this pandemic reflect fundamental differences between the Democratic Party of today and the Republican Party of today.”

Wearing a T-shirt that said “VOTE,” Snodgrass walked through a neighbourhood that leans for Trump. She recited facts about the economy and the pandemic — several millions jobs lost, a rising body count — and Republicans would defend Trump.

She would then try to steer the conversation to common ground, like the need to reduce health care costs, and end by summarizing their conversation by saying, “Here are the things that we agree on.”

These Republican voters found Trump’s demeanour crude. But the unemployment rate was a strong 3.5% before the pandemic. Trump had updated and replaced the North American Free Trade Agreement. They give Trump credit, although he inherited a healthy 4.7% unemployment rate and the trade deficit with Mexico on goods had jumped to $101 billion last year — higher than in any year under Obama.

“There are things that he said he would do,” said Candice Meyer, a retired legal assistant. “And he has done that. He’s done it with a big mouth and a show-off, 13-year-old personality, and he can’t keep his mouth shut. And he’s rude. But he has come through with a lot of his platform.”

The pandemic and recession showed just how ingrained politics was in what people saw, heard and believed. Their partisan loyalties became their realities about how to address the coronavirus and help the economy.

“What really surprised me is how quickly things got polarized,” said Jonathan Rothwell, the principal economist at Gallup. “The pandemic got instantly framed as a piece of good or bad news for the president, much like the jobs report.”

How people feel about the economy increasingly mirrors their politics. AP-NORC found that only 34% of Republicans believed the economy was in good shape in April 2016 when a Democrat was in the White House, a number that swiftly shot upward after Trump’s election to reach 89% this January before the pandemic.

___

At the Midwest Paper Group, where Scott Rice works, there is a story of recovery, but one where credit lay with the union and the Outagamie County executive, not with Trump. Between 2001 and 2016, Wisconsin’s paper industry lost 15,000 jobs. Midwest Paper Group sunk into receivership in 2017 as demand flagged in for crisp white paper.

More than 600 workers were handed pink slips in anticipation of the mill being shuttered, in an area where nearly one in five jobs are still in factories.

“Most were resigned to fate,” said Tom Nelson, the county executive. “The paper industry was deemed old and outdated, uncompetitive because of imports, unfair trade deals, electronic substitution.”

A Democrat with tortoise-shell glasses, Nelson won his first election in Appleton in 2005 and still has a boyish appearance at the age of 44, with curly hair that has grown long during the pandemic. By his estimate, the county would have lost a catastrophic 2,000 jobs as collateral damage if the mill closed.

Nelson, the workers and their union representation lobbied the bankruptcy court and struck a deal. “If it were not for the fact that the mill was unionized, it would be a trash heap,” Nelson said.

Instead, the mill added new machines to make materials for cardboard, capitalizing on the growing number of people shopping online at Amazon. For 12 hours a day, Rice mans the control room in a red face mask that says “USA.”

___

There are other winners in the local economy — the Menard’s home improvement store, grocers, fast-food chains. Bike stores are sold out of Treks, which were built in the factory 87 miles away in Waterloo.

Trek’s three U.S. warehouses were emptied by August because of all the buying, yet Burke, its CEO, was agonizing about the fate of the broader economy.

Burke, 58, pedals 110 miles on his standard Saturday ride, long enough for the nation’s problems to turn over in his mind. After his own college graduation, Burke took a day to get his wisdom teeth pulled and started the next at Trek. He’s remained there for the past 37 years.

He decided to write a book in 2016 and updated it this year, “Presidential Playbook 2020: 16 Nonpartisan Solutions to Save America.”

As Burke sees it, Trump has governed with a dangerous set of blind spots that threaten long-term growth.

There were the hurricanes and wildfires unleashed by climate change. Federal debt has surged. Not enough money is being invested in education and children. And Trump initially downplayed the virus and offered the prospect of unsafe remedies like injecting disinfectant to kill coronavirus.

Appleton is testimony to the lack of simple solutions to the pandemic.

Nearly 40% of the city’s leisure and hospitality jobs have been lost. Restaurants have been closed, hotels vacant. The banquet hall attached to the Longcheng Marketplace that serves the area’s population of 5,000 Hmong immigrants has sat empty since March.

The downtown had been evolving as young parents moved back to Wisconsin from Minneapolis and Chicago. Restaurants and boutiques popped up along College Avenue, catering to the professors and students at Lawrence University. The oil services firm U.S. Ventures announced it would build a new headquarters on a city bluff — 500 office workers who could be regulars at Mondo! wine bar.

Then the pandemic struck.

The status of the U.S. Ventures headquarters is now uncertain, but it certainly won’t open as announced in 2022. Mondo! is getting by with retail sales and outdoor seating, until the weather changes.

Since 2017, David Oliver used Instagram to steadily draw people to Appleton’s first skyscraper (1932) and a bar designed to be as airy and light as an afternoon rosé.

Oliver, 59, would rather keep his politics corked. But he said American businesses desperately need another round of aid. Because the virus has lingered, so have the revenue shortfalls and Oliver blames the president.

“They’re supposed to be pro-business,” Oliver said. “But so much of the Republican Party has reverted to this magical thinking that Trump has that the economy is fine and the virus is going away. They are delusional.”

Oliver worries about a dark time in which future generations feel it’s too risky to start a small business in their hometown. He can’t support the president.

“This event will impact generations of Americans — just like the Great Depression,” Oliver said. “It’s going to make it much harder to try and take the chance. Because, what happens if there is another pandemic?”

___

Other businesses are struggling to find workers. Trisha Kostelny, who runs Fischer-Ulman Construction, could only get five people to apply to lay concrete, even though the job paid $29 an hour with health, dental and a matching 401(k). She only found two of the applicants qualified.

“We’re so short of applicants I’ve wondered if I needed to go out there and do the work myself,” she said.

More than 9,600 people in the Appleton area are still without work.

The Trump administration argues the problem is that the government has been too generous with laid-off workers as officials said that the extra $600 a week in unemployment benefit kept most people from seeking jobs, so their expiration in August should cause a rush of applicants and hiring.

But to Kostelny, the problem is that workers need even more help from the government. Her only way to get more applications is to focus on minorities and women, employees who will likely need to pay for childcare. As of now, she can only afford to cover two-thirds of her 25 employees’ health insurance costs.

If she boosted wages and benefits on her own, she would put her business at risk. She now favours an increase in the minimum wage and some form of universal health care.

Kostelny plans to vote Democratic, as she did in 2016. But her customers and company span the entire political spectrum and she believes the economy is being hurt by the hyper partisanship.

“The more we are divisive — in no way is that good for business,” she said. “That can’t be good for business.”

Matt Albert, chair of the local Republicans, also sees the economic polarization. Businesses were initially less excited about declaring their enthusiasm for Trump and possibly offending Democrats, but those worries faded after the unrest in Kenosha, Wisconsin, after police shot a Black man seven times.

“They had been concerned about losing customers for putting signs up,” Albert said. “But they now feel like if Trump doesn’t get in, they won’t have a business. … The riots will shut them down. The regulations will shut them down.”

Still, Republicans here say that Trump propelled the country to new heights with tax and regulatory cuts, only to be brought low by the force majeure of a virus, and that most voters will hold him blameless.

Republicans’ knock on Joe Biden is that he would raise taxes that could suffocate growth (nearly $4 trillion over 10 years that would largely come from the wealthy).

While Republicans remain confident Trump will carry the county again, some concede the race could be tighter. If he loses cities like Appleton, it could spell trouble for the president.

“I think it will be closer because he’s losing some of the positive momentum that I think he created,” said State Rep. Mike Rohrkaste, who is not seeking reelection. “The pandemic has knocked him off his message.”

Several lawmakers and voters asserted that Biden would become the pawn of socialists and Marxists — a jarring claim in a community whose most notorious native son is Sen. Joe McCarthy, who falsely claimed that the U.S. government was full of communists and whose chief counsel would later become the personal lawyer for a young New York City real estate scion who is now president.

“The COVID has put so much pessimism into the economy — that’s the big killer,” said Marvin Murphy, the 80-year-old owner of Fox Cities magazine. He estimates he has spoken with every business within 70 miles of Appleton over the years.

Only the wealthiest companies with access to cheap capital are likely to survive, Murphy said. He nicknamed the disease the “McVirus,” he said, because McDonalds could not have engineered a “better way to kill off small, independent restaurants.”

A libertarian who said he votes Republican unhappily because “there is nothing else,” Murphy sipped a fresh cup of coffee in his backyard overlooking the Wolf River and lamented that so many people only process the world based on what they see and hear on TV.

“Reality is not the most important thing,” Murphy said. “The perceived reality is what’s important.”

___

AP’s Advance Voting guide brings you the facts about voting early, by mail or absentee from each state: https://interactives.ap.org/advance-voting-2020/

Josh Boak, The Associated Press

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Bipartisan Politics | Politics and Public Affairs – Denison University

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But the ties that bind these four individuals are stronger than most. They, and several other Big Red alumni, are connected through Forbes Tate Partners, a bipartisan, full-service government and public affairs advocacy firm, founded by Forbes and his partner Dan Tate.

In today’s divisive political landscape it might be difficult to imagine that colleagues from opposite sides of the aisle can be, well, collegial. But according to Forbes, who has worked on Democratic campaigns since Al Gore’s presidential bid, that’s the whole point.

“People forget about the moderate factions in politics — and that’s where real work can be done,” says Forbes. So it made sense to build a firm that could work well with both parties and provide positive results for everyone.

And the work has become more complicated. “Lobbying has changed,” he says. “It’s not as much who you know – though that still matters. Today, you have to run a full-fledged campaign with traditional PR, social media, news updates. You have to make sure the people back home see the reason for what you are doing, to create that support before you move forward.”

So how did all these Denisonians find their way to Forbes Tate? You can credit another Denison tie, the Hilltoppers men’s a cappella group. Forbes was a member of the popular campus group, and several years ago a student Hilltopper reached out to him, struggling to figure out what to do for the summer. Forbes’ impulsive response, “Why don’t you come here?” became the beginning of an internship program that has brought scads of students from Denison’s hill to Capitol Hill.

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US vetted stars' politics to showcase Trump virus response – CKPGToday.ca

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The names were among the spreadsheets, memos, notes and other documents from September and October released by the House Oversight and Reform Committee.

The firms’ vetting came as political appointees planned to spend more than $250 million on a confidence-building campaign surrounding the virus, which has killed more than 227,000 people in the United States and is a core issue in the presidential race between Trump and Democrat Joe Biden.

While government public health campaigns are routine, the ad blitz planned by HHS was mired from the start by involvement from department spokesman Michael Caputo, a fierce loyalist and friend of Trump with little experience in the field. In September, a spokesman for Caputo said he was taking a medical leave from HHS as he battled cancer.

Trump, a Republican, has repeatedly minimized the dangers of the coronavirus, even as the nation is in its third wave of infections, with tens of thousands of cases reported each day.

According to one memo compiled by a subcontractor to Atlas Research, one of the firms hired by HHS, Caputo suggested a series of soundbites and taglines for the campaign, including “Helping the President will Help the Country.” The notes say that Caputo wanted the campaign to be “remarkable” and to rival Rosie the Riveter, the character who symbolized women who worked in factories and shipyards during World War II against Germany.

“For us, the ‘enemy’ is the virus,” Caputo said, according to the memo.

The documents also show pushback from some of the federal employees leading the work, who removed Caputo from an email chain and thanked one of the contractors for dealing with a “challenging” environment.

The Democrat-led Oversight panel said Caputo was overstepping his bounds, interfering in work that is supposed to be done by contract officers at the department and politicizing what is supposed to be nonpartisan.

“Of course, it is completely inappropriate to frame a taxpayer-funded ad campaign around ‘helping’ President Trump in the weeks and days before the election,” said House Oversight Chairwoman Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., and Reps. James Clyburn of South Carolina and Raja Krishnamoorthi of Illinois, both subcommittee chairmen, in a letter to HHS Secretary Alex Azar. “This theme also ignores the reality that more than 220,000 Americans have died from coronavirus — a fact that should not be whitewashed in a legitimate public health message.”

Azar put the entire project on hold earlier this month, telling the Oversight subcommittee led by Clyburn that it was being investigated internally.

“I have ordered a strategic review of this public health education campaign that will be led by our top public health and communications experts to determine whether the campaign serves important public health purposes,” Azar told the subcommittee, which is investigating the federal government’s response to the coronavirus outbreak.

Because public health policy around the coronavirus pandemic has become so politically polarized, it’s unclear how well a confidence-building campaign from the government would play.

HHS officials acknowledge a major challenge to any campaign would involve finding trusted intermediaries to make the pitch to average Americans. On health care matters, people usually trust doctors first, not necessarily celebrities. And Trump has alienated much of the medical establishment with his dismissive comments about basic public health measures, such as wearing masks.

The 34-page “PSA Celebrity Tracker” compiled by Atlas Research and released by the committee does not say whether the celebrities were aware they were even being considered or if they had agreed to participate. The report says that no celebrities are now affiliated with the project but a handful did initially agree to participate.

Singer Marc Antony, who has been critical of Trump, pulled out after seeking an amendment to his contract to “ensure that his content would not be used for advertisements to re-elect President Trump.”

Actor Dennis Quaid also initially agreed and then pulled out, according to a document from Atlas Research. In an Instagram video post last month titled “No good deed goes unpoliticized,” Quaid said he was frustrated that a taped interview he did with Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious-disease expert, for the campaign was portrayed in the media as an endorsement of Trump.

“Nothing could be further from the truth,” Quaid said, noting that the interview was still available on his podcast.

Antony and Quaid were among just a few celebrities who were approved for the campaign, according to the documents. Others included TV health commentator Dr. Oz and singer Billy Ray Cyrus.

“Spokespeople for public service campaigns should be chosen on their ability to reach the target audience, not their political affiliation,” the letter from the Democrats reads. “Yet, documents produced by the contractors indicate that the Trump Administration vetted spokespeople based on their political positions and whether they support President Trump.”

___

Associated Press writer Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar contributed to this report.

Mary Clare Jalonick, The Associated Press

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How Virus Politics Divided a Conservative Town in Wisconsin’s North – The New York Times

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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.

Rob Swearingen, a Republican State Assembly member, does not require staff or customers to wear masks at his restaurant in Rhinelander.
Credit…Chang W. Lee/The New York Times

Wisconsin’s 2020 campaigns are concluding while the state is in the midst of one of the nation’s worst coronavirus outbreaks. On Tuesday, as the state set records for the most new cases and deaths, Gov. Tony Evers said Wisconsin faces an “urgent crisis” and urged citizens to stay home.

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.

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 increase the legal blood alcohol limit to drive.

Credit…Chang W. Lee/The New York Times

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.

Credit…Chang W. Lee/The New York Times

“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.

Credit…Chang W. Lee/The New York Times

“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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