IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Tammy Baldwin fights to maintain appeal in rural Wisconsin amid Democratic slide

The senator has outrun other members of her party in rural areas before. This November, she'll have to manage being on a ballot with Donald Trump.
Sen. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis., talks to constituents at a campaign stop on March 29 in Wisconsin Dells.Morry Gash / AP file

REEDSBURG, Wis. — In rural Wisconsin, dairy farmer Randy Roecker is at a breaking point — and he blames it partly on President Joe Biden, so is planning to vote for Donald Trump for a third time this November.

“Farmers are hurting like you wouldn’t believe, and I myself, I am to the point of throwing up my hands and saying I’m done,” said Roecker, who owns and operates Roecker’s Rolling Acres in Loganville and cited inflation as straining his business for the last two years.

But while he's planning to vote on booting the Democratic president, Roecker's also planning to vote to keep his Democratic senator, Tammy Baldwin.

“I support her all the way. I mean, no question,” Roecker said. “And everybody I know — the farmers — everybody says that she’s great for Wisconsin agriculture.”

Baldwin is bracing for a tough re-election race against likely Republican nominee Eric Hovde, a multimillionaire and bank owner who loaned $8 million of his own money to his campaign in the first quarter of the year, according to FEC filings. But she has the advantage of incumbency, and has used it to often outperform other statewide Democrats in rural counties, even as the party as a whole has lost significant ground in rural America in recent decades.

Baldwin is already pouring more effort into rural campaigning this year as she prepares for the challenge of sharing the ballot with one of the forces driving GOP margins in rural areas sky-high. Unlike her first two races for the Senate, in 2012 and 2018, Donald Trump will be running this November, too.

“In Wisconsin, in rural America, I think a lot of people vote straight-ticket, either Republican or Democrat,” said Roecker, who sits on the board of directors for the National Dairy Board, Foremost Farms USA and Dairy Management Inc. “And, you know, like I said, I don’t know how many people go down through there like I do and check her separate.”

Roecker said he didn’t know much about Baldwin’s Republican opponent, but Hovde’s campaign said it plans to work across the state to tell voters that Baldwin is a “rubber stamp for the Biden administration.” A new Marquette University Law School poll out Wednesday showed Baldwin running a single point ahead of Biden among likely voters and 3 points ahead of the president among registered voters. The likely voter results showed Baldwin and Hovde tied, while she had a small lead among registered voters.

“When Tammy Baldwin’s in Washington ... she’s voting like a Washington Democrat,” said Ben Voelkel, senior adviser for the Hovde campaign. “And she’s not, you know, the same person that goes around and campaigns and shows up, you know, every fifth year to campaign.”

Wisconsin Democrats’ rural campaign push

Late last month, Baldwin sat around a kitchen table with Roecker and others from the Farmer Angel Network for a 90-minute discussion about farmers’ mental health. The event was part of the senator’s “Dairyland” tour through 19 counties, none of them among Wisconsin’s five most populated counties.

“I think that there has been a real opportunity for me to be a champion for issues that I might not hear about if I only was going to the population centers of the state,” Baldwin told reporters at a stop at the New Glarus Brewing Co. 

The “Dairyland” tour is one example of a concerted effort by Wisconsin Democrats to court the rural voters who have increasingly rejected the party over the last few elections — as Wisconsin will again play a huge role in determining which party wins the White House and controls Congress. Ben Wikler, chair of the Wisconsin Democratic Party, calls rural voters “essential to the Biden coalition” in 2024. 

“There’s no path to victory without organizing in rural Wisconsin and across the country, as well as suburbs, cities and small towns and big towns,” he said. “In a state like Wisconsin, where four of the last six presidential elections came down to 1 percentage point, you can’t write anyone off or take anyone for granted.”   

Wisconsin GOP Chair Brian Schimming calls the Democrats’ efforts in rural Wisconsin a “fool’s errand” and says the Republican Party plans to focus on the economy as a “constant reminder of the failure of the [Biden] administration” when making its case to rural Wisconsin voters. 

“You don’t talk your way out of that,” Schimming said, speaking about the current economic situation. “I mean, you can talk till you’re blue in the face, but when people leave your talk or turn off your television ad or put down their smartphone, and then pull into a convenience store and pay, you know, a dollar and a quarter more than they’re paying for gas four years ago, they get it.” 

Democrats have an uphill battle in the state’s rural areas, as their statewide victories have increasingly relied on wider margins in the state’s most densely populated metro areas. 

“They have lost huge swaths of the rural/outstate vote in this state, and they are not going to get them back by running Tammy Baldwin around. They’re just not,” Schimming said. “And it’s a problem endemic for the whole party out there.”

Changing coalitions

When Baldwin won a second Senate term in 2018, the “blue wave” midterm during Trump’s presidency, she increased her statewide margin by over 5 points, but she won seven fewer counties than in 2012, though she got larger margins in heavily populated counties. 

“Look, in a state like Wisconsin, a 50/50 battleground state, it is — you don’t have to win every county,” Baldwin said at the campaign stop in New Glarus. “But it is really critical that we get folks out to vote, we have the discussions and up the turnout in every community that you can.” 

Similarly, in 2022, Democratic Gov. Tony Evers slightly increased his margin of victory from four years before but won fewer of the state's 72 counties. Democrats also narrowly lost Wisconsin’s rural 3rd Congressional District after longtime Democratic Rep. Ron Kind retired, with the seat going to Republican Derrick Van Orden by just under 4 points. Republicans have also controlled both the 7th and 8th districts in northern Wisconsin since the 2012 election.

“My county voted for Obama twice. And it was after the second Obama election that it started to shift,” said Peggy Fullmer, chair of the Democratic Party in Marquette County, about an hour north of Madison. “You know, then all of a sudden, it’s been really red ever since.”

Democratic organizers in rural areas are feeling the pressure.

“It’s like pulling hen’s teeth to get votes for Democrats in our areas,” said Linda Wilkins, chair of the neighboring Green Lake County Democratic Party. 

“Every Democratic vote makes a difference, and we get a few more each time in these extremely difficult red areas,” Wilkins said of the work of Democratic organizers in rural Wisconsin. “And without our votes, they wouldn’t win either.” 

But Wilkins thinks it’s time for the Biden campaign to visit rural Wisconsin. “They need to go and visit them and not just go to Milwaukee and Madison,” she said. Biden made trips to Milwaukee and Madison in recent weeks, but he visited Superior in January. First lady Jill Biden visited the Menominee Indian Tribe of Wisconsin’s reservation last October. 

Joni Anderson, vice-chair of the Adams County Democratic Party and a coordinator of Democratic efforts across several rural counties, said she wishes the state party would give more support to candidates who run in rural areas. 

Wikler said the state party will soon announce its largest-ever investment in state legislative races. 

“This is something that I’ve been really listening to — the feedback from rural county parties and rural Democrats,” Wikler said. “We want to make sure that when somebody’s the Democratic nominee, wherever they live in Wisconsin, they have the backing of our state party."

For farmers like Roecker, showing up means a lot, but it’s not everything.

“They just can’t show up at the farm and do a photo op, you know what I mean?” he said, adding that farmers feel like elected officials “don’t care what’s going on out here” as long as there’s food in the grocery store. 

“It’s a shame when farmers are on food stamps themselves and they produce food for 155 other people. And that’s how broken the system is here,” Roecker said.