GREEN BAY, Wis. — The last time President Donald Trump visited Wisconsin he staged a raucous rally at an arena in downtown Milwaukee. For his return Thursday to the battleground state, he was reminded how much has changed since January.
The Republican president visited conservative, rural Wisconsin for a private tour of a shipyard far from Milwaukee, where coronavirus restrictions now prevent large rallies.
When Trump last campaigned in the state in January, the unemployment rate was 3.5%. Now, 12% of Wisconsin workers are jobless.
Trump’s standing in Wisconsin appears to be suffering from the extraordinary period of turmoil, and his visit was part of a concerted effort to shore up support in friendlier areas that can make or break his reelection chances.
Besides the visit to Marinette, the president participated in a town hall, to be broadcast in prime time by Fox News Channel, from an airport in Green Bay. The trip comes days after he dispatched Vice President Mike Pence to the conservative Milwaukee suburbs.
The two parts of Wisconsin Trump is targeting this week — suburban Milwaukee and the Green Bay media market in northeast Wisconsin — are areas where he needs to run up a big vote advantage in November.
Some polls have suggested Trump has ground to make up in Wisconsin. A Marquette University Law School poll released Wednesday showed Democrat Joe Biden with an 8 percentage point lead over Trump. Trump trailed Democrat Hillary Clinton in nearly every poll conducted in Wisconsin in 2016 — often by similar margins — before he won the state by fewer than 23,000 votes.
Marinette County helped deliver that win. Trump carried the county, about 170 miles (275 kilometers) north of Milwaukee along the shores of Lake Michigan’s Green Bay, with 65% of the vote.
Unlike Trump’s rally in Oklahoma last weekend and his visit to a Phoenix megachurch Tuesday, his tour of the Fincantieri Marinette Marine shipyard was not scheduled to be open to the public. He planned to speak to 500 to 600 people inside the shipyard, all of whom were required to wear masks, the shipbuilder’s spokesperson Eric Dent said in an email.
Trump, who generally refuses to cover his face, will not, Dent said.
“We are not asking or requiring the president to wear a mask, as we are going to go to great lengths to give him the appropriate social distance,” he said.
Marinette has not been a hotbed of the virus, with just a few dozen cases and three deaths. Thirteen employees at the shipbuilder have tested positive for COVID-19, but they have all recovered and returned to work, Dent said. Everyone who enters the facility is now screened, he said.
Trump’s appearance gives him a chance to score points with blue-collar workers who know the importance of the shipbuilder to the region’s economy, said John Nygren, a Republican member of the state Assembly who was born and raised in Marinette.
“Granted, Trump is not traditional in a lot of ways, but it’s a great opportunity from a working-class standpoint to show Republicans can stand up for them,” Nygren said.
Trump planned to promote a contract won in April by Fincantieri Marinette Marine to build as many as 10 Navy frigates. The shipbuilder plans to invest $200 million to expand the Marinette facility because of the contract. The company employs about 2,500 people now, and the deal could add 1,000 jobs and be worth $5.6 billion if all the ships are built. It’s the first new major shipbuilding program for the Navy in more than a decade.
Biden said in a statement Thursday that Trump was coming to Marinette “to take credit for Obama-Biden administration-fueled successes in an attempt to paper over the fact that Wisconsin has been bleeding blue-collar manufacturing jobs over the past few weeks. Instead of offering real relief to working families, he’s trying to claim credit for progress in Marinette he did not build.”
Before departing Washington, Trump and first lady Melania Trump marked the 70th anniversary of the start of the Korean War by visiting the Korean War Veterans Memorial on the National Mall.
Trump’s visit to Marinette is believed to be the first time a sitting president has come to the city. As a candidate, John F. Kennedy campaigned in Marinette in 1960, when he gave a speech on the importance of loans for farmers. Pence was at the same Marinette shipyard in November to promote Trump’s trade deal with Mexico and Canada.