How Kenosha Became the Center of Attention in the Battle for POTUS

In a rare turn of events, both presidential candidates are visiting this Wisconsin city. Here’s why it’s so important to both campaigns.

The shooting of Jacob Blake by Kenosha police officer Rusten Sheskey and the unrest that followed has suddenly put the city at that heart of the battle for president. 

In a rare turn of events this week, both presidential candidates visited Kenosha, a one-time factory town of about 100,000 people that still embraces its working class roots even though it has, over time, become more of a bedroom community of sorts for residents who work in the Milwaukee or Chicago area. 

“Wisconsin matters. This is a battleground state,” Marquette University political science professor Amber Wichowsky said.

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Democratic presidential candidate nominee Joe Biden traveled to Kenosha on Thursday, two days after President Donald Trump visited the city. The appearances by the candidates came as Kenosha comes to grips with Blake’s shooting and the destructive aftermath. 

The eyes of the nation – the world, for that matter – have been focused on Kenosha since Sheskey fired seven shots into Blake’s back as Blake leaned into a car after police had been called to investigate a domestic dispute in the afternoon of Aug. 23.

Thursday marked Biden’s first trip to Wisconsin in two years and came just two weeks after he chose not to travel to Milwaukee for the Democratic National Convention, dealing a major blow to the region, which lost out on economic boost, not to mention the international attention, that an appearance by him and his running mate, Senator Kamala Harris of California, would have generated. 

In announcing he wouldn’t be coming to Milwaukee for the DNC, Biden’s camp blamed the coronavirus pandemic and the need to preserve the health of the public and the 77-year-old former vice president. Instead, Biden accepted the Democratic Party’s nomination from his home state of Delaware. 

In his visit to Kenosha on Tuesday, Trump took part in a roundtable discussion with law enforcement officials and toured parts of the city that sustained damaged during the uprisings that followed the shooting of Blake. Demonstrators set fire to several buildings in the city and torched a car lot near the Kenosha County Courthouse.  Two nights after Blake’s shooting, two protesters were killed and a third seriously injured after being shot on the streets of the city. Kyle Rittenhouse, 17, of nearby Antioch, Illinois, who had been seen on the night of the shootings armed with a long gun, has been charged in the case. 

The appearance by Trump, who didn’t meet with Blake’s family, drew vocal supporters of the president to Kenosha as well as protesters demonstrating against police brutality and racial injustice, some of whom have been marching for nearly 100 days following the death of George Floyd under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer in May. 

Biden, who has rarely traveled during the coronavirus pandemic, met with members of Blake’s family on Thursday, spoke with Jacob Blake, who is paralyzed and remains hospitalized, by phone and spoke at Grace Lutheran Church in Kenosha before traveling north to take part in a gathering at a residence in Wauwatosa’s East Towne neighborhood later in the day.

Wisconsin has long been a battleground state when it comes to the race for president and the state’s 10 electoral votes. The state is once again critical in this presidential race and is certain to play a major role in determining who leads the country for the next four years.

With that in mind, Trump visited Oshkosh in August during the run of the DNC and Marinette in June. Vice President Mike Pence has traveled to Wisconsin five times this year, including a visit to Darien in Walworth County last month. 

The unrest in Kenosha has become a focal point for Trump, who has made law an order a campaign issue, Wichowsky said.

“In many ways, he sees it as the issue that will draw attention away from other issues, whether it’s the pandemic or the economy,” Wichowsky said. “This is not going to the campaign Trump thought he was going to be running, with the economy looking really good in 2019.”

Trump traveled to Kenosha to try to dominate the news cycle, she said. 

“Trump is really trying to associate Joe Biden with the looting and the more radical elements of this protest movement,” Wichowsky said. “He’s saying that Joe Biden supports defunding the police. Trump came to Kenosha and really emphasized the destruction. Those images. He’s running campaign ads on it. Now Biden is trying to make sure that Trump isn’t dictating the narrative. For Biden to come to Kenosha, he’s acknowledging and addressing the importance of Wisconsin to the 2020 election but also making sure that Trump’s not framing him and his candidacy and that he’s able to get his message out as well.”

In all the messaging from Biden to this point, he has focused on the peaceful aspects of the protests and the demand for racial justice, she said.

Biden’s appearance in the state also takes on greater importance given that Hillary Clinton became the first Democratic presidential candidate to lose Wisconsin since 1984. Many political experts blamed the loss on her decision to ignore the state in the months leading up to the 2016 election. 

But what about that decision by Biden not to attend the DNC in Milwaukee only to travel to the state such a short time later?

“It is a strange message,” Wichowsky asid. “Biden did not accept the nomination here and throughout the summer we just kept seeing the DNC’s presence in Milwaukee keep getting scaled back. I know there was a lot of disappointment when Biden said he was not going to accept the nomination here. I think he’ll have to address that at some point.”

With Wisconsin emerging as a key battleground state in the presidential election, this week’s visits to the state by the candidates certainly won’t be their last, Wichowsky said. 

“I’m expecting a lot more visits to Wisconsin as we get closer the election, despite the pandemic,” she said. “I think it’s just the beginning and not one-time appearances from Trump and Biden. I’m expecting them to come. I’m expecting Pence and Harris. I’m expecting their campaign surrogates to really make a play.”

It’s becoming clear that winning Wisconsin could be a make-or-break proposition for the next president of the United States. 

“Wisconsin is essential,” Wichowsky said.

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Rich Rovito is a freelance writer for Milwaukee Magazine.