PEWAUKEE, Wis. (CN) — Vice President Mike Pence launched his “Faith in America” rally tour in a Milwaukee suburb Tuesday, returning to a reliably conservative area of a key battleground state to drum up enthusiasm among the president’s base less than five months from the election.
Pence and his entourage were greeted with sunny, temperate weather and hundreds of supporters Tuesday at the Ingleside Hotel in Pewaukee, part of a belt of staunchly red counties immediately surrounding Milwaukee’s Democratic stronghold that President Donald Trump’s re-election campaign seeks to retain despite some signs of vulnerability.
Trump carried Waukesha County by around 28 points in the 2016 presidential election, but in 2012 Republican nominee Mitt Romney won the county by about 35 points.
Some local conservatives in the Badger State with both grassroots and establishment support have not fared terribly well in recent elections. Democratic Governor Tony Evers beat two-term incumbent Republican Governor Scott Walker, who appeared at Tuesday’s rally, as part of a blue wave in the 2018 midterms that resulted in liberals taking every statewide office.
In April, liberal-leaning Dane County Circuit Court Judge Jill Karofsky comfortably beat conservative Justice Daniel Kelly in a contest for a 10-year term on the Wisconsin Supreme Court, despite the fact that Kelly is a longtime denizen of Wisconsin’s conservative inner circle who earned repeated endorsements from Trump.
At the rally in Pewaukee on Tuesday, supporters of the Trump-Pence ticket lined up to have their temperatures taken and receive single-use surgical masks from health care workers acting on behalf of the Trump campaign, seemingly indicating the campaign and supporters alike are cognizant of the inherent risks in carrying out large gatherings in the midst of the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic.
Ticket buyers were also required to sign a waiver releasing the Trump campaign from liability if any attendee should contract the coronavirus at the event, a legal measure also taken at Trump’s somewhat underwhelming but nevertheless controversial rally in Tulsa on Saturday.
The Badger State has been without any overriding state-level public health guidelines since the conservative-majority Wisconsin Supreme Court ended the governor’s Covid-19 lockdown order in mid-May.
Since then, Wisconsin’s 72 counties and hundreds of municipalities have been tackling the pandemic in piecemeal fashion. On June 4, Waukesha County upped its recommendation for large gatherings from 50 to 100 people, well under the combined tally of Trump supporters, media and law enforcement at Tuesday’s rally.
A representative with Waukesha County clarified Tuesday that the county does not currently have an order in place regarding the coronavirus and that the large gatherings guideline is simply a recommendation to provide businesses with the flexibility to operate during the pandemic.
Before the rally, Trump supporter Dave Dickson worked a merch table selling “Make America Great Again” hats, colorful campaign T-shirts and flags, and paper masks bearing the president’s face.
Dickson, who is originally from Florida, told Courthouse News he has been organizing on Trump’s behalf since at least the 2016 South Carolina primary, a race Trump won with just over 32% support on his way to an upset victory over Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton that fall.
“Trump’s been a real anomaly,” Dickson said. “He’s a businessman, I think we need a businessman to run the country. It’s a lot better than the alternative,” he said in reference to career politicians like former vice president and presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden.
Dickson said Tuesday he does not understand how anyone could support Biden.
“I respect Joe Biden, but he’s past it,” Dickson said.
Trump’s history as a businessman and his focus on the economy also resonated with a supporter named Bill, who chose not to reveal his last name.
Bill, who lives in Pewaukee, said that he has been a Trump supporter for decades.
“I said to my wife 20 years ago, ‘this guy should be president,’” he said.
Trump’s candor and lack of concern for how he appears to those who do not support him are also something Bill favors.
“He doesn’t care who he offends as long as he gets the job done,” he said. “He’s not out to make friends.”
Not everyone who turned out Tuesday did so to show support for Trump and Pence.
Nick Stamatakos, a health care administrator from the nearby town of Slinger, came out to protest the rally, standing alone near the side of the road in front of the Ingleside Hotel.
Stamatakos held a sign with two sides. One side had a picture of Trump overlaid with a biohazard symbol situated above text reading “Toxic to America.” The reverse side sported block letters reading “Hijacked by Impostors” below the GOP elephant symbol, flipped upside down.
Stamatakos, who described himself as an “old white man, formerly conservative,” said he voted for Clinton in 2016 after becoming disenchanted with the GOP’s fierce opposition to the Affordable Care Act, one of the signature pieces of legislation passed during the Obama years.
As someone who has worked in health care and specialized in Medicare in one capacity or another for the past 30 years, Stamakatos said responses like that to issues of public health helped turn a “socially responsible conservative” away from the Grand Old Party.
Stamakatos does not think much of Trump personally.
“He’s a pathological liar who is only interested in doing what is necessary for his financial position,” Stamakatos said, going on to opine that Trump is only in it “to enrich himself and his buddies.”
After initial comments and anecdotes from Walker, an invocation of prayer, the pledge of allegiance and the national anthem, Kellyanne Conway, a counselor and former campaign manager to the president appearing in her personal capacity, offered warm-up remarks that painted the 2020 election as a choice between the past in Biden and the future in Trump.
Pence took the stage at 1:30 p.m. after passing through an adjacent overflow room at the Ingleside Hotel holding roughly 100 supporters who could not fit in the main ballroom while adhering to social distancing measures.
“It is great to be back in the Badger State as we celebrate faith in America,” Pence said.
The vice president made reference to Trump winning Wisconsin in 2016, the first time a Republican presidential candidate won the state since Ronald Reagan won his second term in 1984. The president upset Clinton in the Badger State by less than 1 percentage point.
“Four years ago a movement was born, made up of everyday Americans from every walk of life,” Pence said. “Here in Wisconsin, you believed we could be strong again, you believed we could be prosperous again.”
Pence went on to run the gamut of recurring Trump campaign themes, including the fight for religious freedom and the right to bear arms, creating good-paying jobs, helping Americans with American problems first, and a prevailing ethos of action over talk.
But in addressing recent upheaval and unrest across the nation in light of the coronavirus pandemic and the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police, Pence acknowledged historic turbulence in the nation that has put the Trump administration on “virtually a wartime footing.”
Pence applauded Trump’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic, despite the fact that his administration’s response has faced widespread criticism for acting too nonchalantly and being devoid of organization after he publicly dismissed the virus as a nonthreat in its early days.
The vice president also made reference to the “fight for educational choice,” cheering on Wisconsin’s school choice program that provides vouchers for kids to attend private schools in lieu of remaining in the local public school system. Pence had earlier in the day appeared with Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and others at an event at Waukesha STEM Academy.
With regard to international protests calling for an end to systemic racism and unchecked brutality in American policing spurred by Floyd’s death, Pence took the opportunity to salute law enforcement and the importance of the rule of law.
“There’s no excuse for what happened to George Floyd,” Pence said, “but there’s also no excuse for the rioting and looting.”
The former Indiana governor compared reactions to the protests from Biden and from Trump, painting Biden as soft on crime in an overall thread echoing the law-and-order rhetoric that has become a cornerstone of Trump’s brand.
“Biden put out a press release,” he said. “Trump put out the National Guard.”
Referencing some protesters’ calls to reimagine the role of police in society and divert some of police departments’ resources to more community-based initiatives, Pence said “we’re listening, we’re learning, and we’re leading, but we’re not going to defund the police.”
The crowd in the Ingleside Hotel ballroom met the vice president’s remarks with enthusiastic acclamation across the board, peppering their applause with cheers of “four more years!” and “USA!”
Pence then turned to the importance of the American judiciary in crystallizing Trump policies into law, announcing that the president will nominate his 200th judge this week.
However, Pence asserted that “we need more conservatives on the Supreme Court of the United States” in reference to two recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions seen as losses for the Trump administration.
One decision temporarily blocked the president from winding down the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, program for certain immigrants brought to the U.S. illegally as children, and the other expanded Title VII protections for LGBTQ workers.
Pence finished his speech by touting the importance of religious faith in the country’s path forward, remarking that “we live by the words of our national motto: In God We Trust.”
Members of the crowd waved Bibles in the air as Pence patted Trump on the back for religion-related moves like relocating the American embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, and for generally standing without apology for the sanctity of human life.
The vice president said “it was my great honor to cast the tie-breaking vote to allow states like Wisconsin to defund Planned Parenthood,” a sexual health care nonprofit that offers some abortion services. The crowd jeered when Pence mentioned that Biden is endorsed by Planned Parenthood.
Pence also mentioned that St. John’s Episcopal Church in Washington was vandalized again on Monday after suffering damage from a fire during demonstrations reacting to Floyd’s death. The church was thrust into the national spotlight recently due to a highly controversial photo op of the president holding up a Bible in front of it, an opportunity secured after protestors in nearby Lafayette Square were dispersed with tear gas and rubber bullets.
Pence concluded by encouraging the so-called silent majority to be silent no more.
“Four more years means more support for our troops, four more years means more jobs, four more years means more judges…and it will take at least four more years to drain that swamp,” he said.
The president is scheduled to appear at Fincantieri Marinette Marine, a shipbuilding firm in the small northeastern Wisconsin town of Marinette, on Thursday before a town hall event in Green Bay featuring Fox News commentator and faithful Trump stalwart Sean Hannity.