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Inside the fight for suburban swing votes in WI

The Milwaukee suburb of Wauwatosa has become a key swing district for down-ballot races in Wisconsin. Democrats are fighting to maintain a 2018 victory there and parlay it into wins in other suburban districts, while local Republicans are appealing to suburban voters’ concerns about public safety in the wake of the Kenosha, WI shooting and subsequent unrest. PBS Wisconsin’s Zac Schultz reports.

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  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    With protesters across the country demanding police reform, the President has made the issue of law and order one of the hallmarks of his campaign.

    It's an issue that's playing out in the Milwaukee, Wisconsin suburb of Wauwatosa.

    Protesters there demonstrated earlier this month after officials decided not to charge a police officer who fatally shot 17-year-old Alvin Cole in February outside a local mall.

    Those protests and others stemming from another police shooting in Kenosha this summer have become part of the campaigns in a race for the Wisconsin state assembly.

    Wisconsin PBS political reporter Zachary Schultz has the story.

  • Zac Schultz:

    Democrat Robyn Vining burst onto Wisconsin's political scene in 2018 when she won the traditionally Republican 14th Assembly District.

  • Robyn Vining:

    For us, it's people matter. That's at the core. So in 2018, we broke the record of numbers of doors knocked for an assembly campaign.

  • Zac Schultz:

    The 14th runs east/west and contains parts of the Milwaukee suburbs of Wauwatosa and Brookfield. Vining won the open seat by just 138 votes and she had to appeal to all voters.

  • Robyn Vining:

    We ran a campaign last time focused on people. Democrats voted for me. Independents voted for me. Republicans voted for me.

  • Zac Schultz:

    The question for Vining is whether she can keep that coalition together.

  • Robyn Vining:

    I'm running for office based on how did I do my job for those first 15 months before there was a pandemic? How have I done my job as a legislator during the pandemic?

  • Bonnie Lee:

    I'm Bonnie Lee. I'm running for State Assembly in this district.

  • Zac Schultz:

    Republican Bonnie Lee says she respects the work Robyn Vining put in to get elected but says she needs to be replaced.

  • Bonnie Lee:

    I believe that I represent this district actually a little bit more accurately.

  • Zac Schultz:

    Lee says there is one core issue that voters in the suburbs are worried about: public safety.

  • Bonnie Lee:

    Really, after about the last couple of months this issue has come to the top. There is not a day that goes by that I don't talk with somebody who says we are thinking of leaving. In particular Wauwatosa, Milwaukee. That's how communities die. We can't have that happen here.

  • Zac Schultz:

    Bonnie Lee is not the only Republican talking about this. Donald Trump spent the summer campaigning on law and order in response to the protests against police shootings that popped up around the country.

  • Donald Trump:

    Because we're for law and order. They say don't use that term. It's too tough. No, everybody wants law and order.

  • Andrew Hitt:

    Public safety, law and order as the President would say, is sort of going to be front and center on the ballot in November.

  • Zac Schultz:

    Andrew Hitt is chairman of the Republican Party of Wisconsin. He says the shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha and the subsequent protests that saw fires and a teenage vigilante kill two people were a turning point in the state.

  • Andrew Hitt:

    What happened in Kenosha is very unfortunate I think but it did refocus a little bit this race, at least for Wisconsin.

  • Ben Wikler:

    Trump has fueled the chaos and fueled the violence and cheered on a vigilante who came to Kenosha and shot two people dead.

  • Zac Schultz:

    Ben Wikler is chair of the Democratic Party of Wisconsin.

  • Ben Wikler:

    I think the Republicans are fooling themselves if they think that people like the chaos that they're experiencing under Donald Trump.

  • Zac Schultz:

    Donald Trump is not running for State Assembly in Wauwatosa but his presence looms over every race down the ballot.

  • Bonnie Lee:

    Got a presidential campaign going on that's pretty polarizing on both sides.

  • Zac Schultz:

    Across the country, 2018 saw suburbs that were once Republican strongholds turn blue. In Wisconsin, Robyn Vining was the only Democrat to accomplish that.

  • Gordon Hintz:

    The suburbs have changed dramatically.

  • Zac Schultz:

    Democrat Gordon Hintz is the Assembly minority leader. He hopes to expand on Vining's win.

  • Gordon Hintz:

    There are a number of districts similar to hers. Sometimes even maybe perhaps with better numbers that I think there is a roadmap and I think we have candidates that really reflect the model and the style that Representative Vining has demonstrated is successful.

  • Zac Schultz:

    For her part, Vining says there's no magic formula.

  • Robyn Vining:

    The formula that matters is that the community rises up and claims the seat. How that happens is going to be different in every community, right?

  • Bonnie Lee:

    I'm running for State Assembly in this district.

  • Zac Schultz:

    Bonnie Lee says the district didn't rise up against Republicans and people didn't change their minds. She said the 14th started voting democratic when Democrats moved out of Milwaukee.

  • Bonnie Lee:

    I certainly see that here in Wauwatosa. It used to be that if you were a city worker, you must live in the city of Milwaukee. And then that was lifted and plenty of people moved into Wauwatosa. Quite a few of those were educators with the teachers union.

  • Robyn Vining:

    It's not always about partisanship. People vote for people versus party. I think honestly, I think that's the trends.

  • Zac Schultz:

    Whether Vining has made the 14th a true swing district remains to be seen in November. But the fact is, the 14th was created to elect Republicans. Court documents from redistricting lawsuits show Republicans drew the 14th Assembly lines so the voter makeup was between 57 and 59% Republican. In the years Democrats put up a challenger, the Republican received 57% and 59% of the vote. But in 2018, the Republican received 48% of the votes and Robyn Vining received 138 more than that.

  • Robyn Vining:

    I don't think that we are as polarized as we think we are. That Democrats live in one area and Republicans live in one area. I think that people vote for both parties.

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