Wisconsin Voters Caught Between Democrats, GOP

An important 15 percent slice of the electorate has been identified as Conservative Democrats. They're mostly faithful democratic voters, but are closer to Republicans on many social issues. Wisconsin is an important swing state, and voters in Stevens Point, Wis., typify the Conservative Democrats.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Michele Norris.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

From time to time we've been learning about groups of voters in America. NPR's Linda Wertheimer has been talking to people who typify voter groups as identified by pollster Andy Kohut of The Pew Research Center after the last presidential election.

NORRIS: Today we hear about a 15 percent slice of the electorate Kohut calls conservative Democrats. They're mostly faithful Democratic voters, but on a lot of social issues, they're closer to Republicans. For this report, Linda Wertheimer takes us to an important swing state, Wisconsin, to hear what conservative Democrats are thinking.

LINDA WERTHEIMER reporting:

Worzalla Publishing prints books, mostly children's books. You're listening to a jacketing machine folding a shiny paper cover around a book about Chester Raccoon.

(Soundbite of machine)

WERTHEIMER: Stacks of "Curious George: The Movie" are waiting down the line. The company is located in Stevens Point, Wisconsin, a small Democratic town almost exactly in the center of the state, a blue county in the midst of many red ones. The business is owned by Worzalla's workers. We met some of them in the conference room. Marianne Schaeffer(ph) is the plant's human resources manager. She fits our typology perfectly. She votes like a Democrat, but sometimes she thinks like a Republican.

Ms. MARIANNE SCHAEFFER (Worzalla Publishing): Ask me about abortion and I'll be as red as that coffee mug. Ask me about other things and I can be really blue.

WERTHEIMER: Is abortion a voting issue for you?

Ms. SCHAEFFER: Sometimes.

WERTHEIMER: But not all the time?

Ms. SCHAEFFER: No. I have to weigh everything. I want real people talking to me. And if I can get that honesty coming across, I'm more apt to listen and more apt to vote. If it's a lot of PR-generated stuff, I turn it off and I may not vote.

WERTHEIMER: Abortion is important in this largely Catholic area, but other things are also on the table. For these Democrats, it's mainly the war and jobs. Sherry Kirch(ph) is an executive assistant.

Ms. SHERRY KIRCH (Worzalla Publishing): My father worked at a paper mill, my brothers work at a paper mill, and now I hear paper mills are the next manufacturers to be damaged by China and all the jobs going over there. You know, our business here has improved a lot, but mainly that's probably because a lot of our competitors have bit the dust.

WERTHEIMER: In the last election the Republican Party succeeded in picking up many Democratic voters with so-called wedge issues, where the Democratic platform doesn't square with Wisconsin thinking. One such issue in this largely rural state is gun control. Bill Masur(ph) works with Worzalla's computers.

Mr. BILL MASUR (Worzalla Publishing): And the Republicans have done a great job of selling the extreme; that Democrats want to take every hunting rifle away from everybody in the United States. The Democrats gotta get better at selling that, `No, we don't want your hunting rifles, and we don't want your protection handguns, but we do want to take the extreme items off the street.'

WERTHEIMER: Wisconsin's school districts have had to close schools to save money, so education is a big issue. The price of energy matters in the state, where temperatures are frequently well below zero. The president lost Wisconsin last year and has lost more ground since, so Republicans have an uphill battle. Tony Ginch(ph) crunches numbers on printing projects. He and others did mention one interesting Republican.

Mr. TONY GINCH (Worzalla Publishing): The one guy that I thought was John McCain--that I respected. You know, he's a guy that sat in a prison camp for six years in Vietnam and would have a perspective on life that's a little bit better than some other people. That's a guy that I'll listen to.

WERTHEIMER: Wisconsin voters traditionally like maverick politicians. Robert Gill(ph) works on the bookbinding line. He was one of several people who mentioned the state's own senator.

Mr. ROBERT GILL (Worzalla Publishing): I have a strong admiration for Senator Russ Feingold. I think he's a man of integrity. He's not afraid to take unpopular stands, like opposition to the Iraq War or opposition to the Patriot Act at a time when that could have been political suicide.

WERTHEIMER: At St. Paul's Methodist Church, we met another group--parents, teachers and businesspeople this time. Jeanie Tokman(ph) and Sharon Redford(ph) are sisters, homemakers, Catholics with large families. The first voice is Jeanie, who told us the war in Iraq has made her mistrust all politicians, including Democrats.

Ms. JEANIE TOKMAN: Oh, I find myself thinking, `Well, we'll wait and see,' you know. And, unfortunately, with the way things are in our country, it's so divided and there's just so many spins on topics, that I don't know what to believe anymore. And so I don't have anybody, Democratic or anybody, that I completely trust.

WERTHEIMER: Sharon, what about you?

Ms. SHARON REDFORD: I think we need a candidate that probably we haven't even met yet. I'm not seeing anybody out there that I would be excited to vote for. There's too much history. So I think we need somebody fresh, somebody different. I can't say who 'cause I don't know who that is, but I'm not seeing anybody that I would be excited about.

WERTHEIMER: Besides new faces, these voters favor a commonsense approach to big issues. Two college professors from the local branch of the University of Wisconsin have suggestions. David Henry teaches speech pathology. He says maybe Democrats were misled about Iraq, but that's now beside the point.

Professor DAVID HENRY (University of Wisconsin): It would be far wiser for them to focus on the ineptitude in how we went in, the mismanagement, the corruption that has occurred. It was so foolishly done, and it has cost the lives of so many Americans and Iraqis.

WERTHEIMER: Budgets and deficits matter to Kent Hall, who is a retired biology professor.

Professor KENT HALL (University of Wisconsin): I am a fiscal conservative. In that sense, I should have in common a lot with the Republican Party. But this has been the most irresponsible Republican Party from that regard that I've ever seen.

WERTHEIMER: Another suggestion: rethink issues like gun control and gay marriage, perhaps even disagree with the party platform and concentrate on bigger things. Carol Weston works on environmental education.

Ms. CAROL WESTON: I do think the Democrats need to prioritize what they're going to have their battles over. It's almost like some of these things, we don't need to fight to the death over them, but look at what would be the overarching goals. And I guess we'll have to learn to compromise on some of these other things. The Republican Party has been genius at distracting the Americans from the important issues and trying to focus on some of these more minor issues, so that they can get their agenda through.

WERTHEIMER: For most of these Democrats, the war is the biggest issue. In central Wisconsin, many young people join the National Guard hoping to pick up new skills and improve their lives. Many of them have gone to Iraq, and some of them have died. Jeanie Tokman talked about an obituary for a 19-year-old local soldier.

Ms. TOKMAN: Well, they're grasping at things to say about this man because he was a kid. He was a high school kid that was just there, trying to find his way. They kept saying he was a team player, a team member. You know, he was a member of the band and--but, really, nobody noticed him, even in his unit. Nobody really knew him because he was a kid. And I--it's haunted me that this baby that never found his life is dead.

WERTHEIMER: Jeanie Tokman said it's hard for her to think that this particular death made a difference. For her, that's a voting issue. Reporting on the Democrats of Stevens Point, Wisconsin, Linda Wertheimer, NPR News.

SIEGEL: This is NPR, National Public Radio.

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