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Kenosha’s upheaval jolts swing-state politics for Trump and Biden

Jeffrey Taylor and Amanda Albright
Bloomberg

When Donald Trump takes the stage at the Republican convention Thursday night, the president will have a fresh example of strife to point to in making his case that people won’t be safe in Joe Biden’s America – this time in Wisconsin, a state that could decide the election.

The shooting of a Black man multiple times in the back by police in the southern Wisconsin town of Kenosha has outraged both minority and White communities in Wisconsin and across the country, with professional sports leagues canceling games after athletes refused to play out of solidarity with the protesters.

Police clash with protesters in front of the Kenosha County Courthouse late Tuesday, Aug. 25, 2020, in the background of this photo illustration by The Detroit News.

But the images of rioting and vandalism in the wake of Jacob Blake’s shooting have also prompted Republicans to demand a more robust response by the Democratic-led state government and fueled charges at the Republican convention this week that Democrats aren’t tough enough on protesters.

Trump will discuss the unrest in Kenosha in his convention speech Thursday night, according to campaign spokesman Tim Murtaugh. Still, focusing on the unrest could backfire on Trump if he looks like he is trying to exploit the situation in a state where Trump is trailing by 3.5 percentage points in the RealClearPolitics average of state data. The protests were followed by the killings of two protesters and the revelation that the teenage suspect had attended a Trump rally in January.

Biden has his own set of challenges in responding to the protests. To capture Wisconsin, the Democratic nominee must walk a line between mobilizing his African-American and young supporters outraged by the shooting while not alienating White suburban voters concerned about safety and security.

“These are the types of tragedies that can mobilize voters,” said Democratic State Senator LaTonya Johnson, who represents downtown Milwaukee and one of state’s poorest neighborhoods nearby. “A lot of people stayed home when Trump won in Wisconsin four years ago. They’re going to vote this time.” Just over 6% of the population in Wisconsin is Black, with the majority living in Milwaukee.

The police shooting of Blake in front of his children on Sunday was followed by a Black Lives Matter protest in which two people were shot dead and an Illinois teenager was arrested as a suspect. A photo later showed the shooting suspect, Kyle Rittenhouse, 17, of Antioch, Illinois, at a January Trump rally in Des Moines, Iowa.

Front-of-Mind Issue

The Blake shooting and related violence is “going to be a front-of-mind issue for people here in the state,” said Jim Steineke, the Republican majority leader of the Wisconsin state Assembly. He said that people he’s spoken to in his district are scared about the violence that they’re seeing, and that’s his priority now rather than the election. “I do feel like people value safety and security over just about anything else,” Steineke said.

The latest videotaped incident of police violence against an African-American man came just 10 weeks before the presidential election and four weeks before the start of mail-in balloting in Wisconsin. Trump unexpectedly carried the state by a margin of less than 1 percentage point over Hillary Clinton in 2016, becoming the first Republican presidential candidate to win there since 1984.

In a 90-second video statement released Wednesday, Biden said he had spoken to Blake’s parents and assured them that “justice would be done.” The former vice president said that “protesting brutality is a right and absolutely necessary, but burning down communities is not protest.” Biden, however, is avoiding travel because of the coronavirus pandemic, which means he is also forgoing the chance to meet with protesters firsthand in Wisconsin.

Biden said on MSNBC on Thursday that “if I were president I would be going,” but also said he would consider going to Wisconsin as the Democratic nominee, but “I don’t want to become part of the problem.”

Law and Order

So far, Trump has reacted to the Wisconsin shooting by calling for a stronger response from the state’s Democratic governor and Vice President Mike Pence only mentioned Kenosha briefly in his convention speech Wednesday night without mentioning the shooting victim. Blake’s mother said on CNN Wednesday that she’d missed a call from the president.

“We will NOT stand for looting, arson, violence, and lawlessness on American streets,” Trump tweeted Wednesday. “I will be sending federal law enforcement and the National Guard to Kenosha, WI to restore LAW and ORDER!”

Trump aide Kellyanne Conway made the explicit argument that the violence benefits Trump politically in an appearance on Fox News on Thursday morning.

“The more chaos and anarchy and vandalism and violence reigns, the better it is for the very clear choice on who’s best on public safety and law and order,” she said.

Biden reacted to Conway’s and Trump’s remarks by saying that Trump “is rooting for more violence not less” and said “he views it as a political benefit.”

Mark Jefferson, executive director of the Wisconsin Republican Party, argued that the news coverage of the protests is sparking concerns about law, order.

“If we were to try to exploit this for political purposes that would be a problem, but the pictures on television don’t lie,” Jefferson said. ”I don’t think the president has tried to exploit” these episodes, instead “he’s focusing on the concerns of people,” related to law, order and safety.

Mobilizing Voters

Wisconsin Democrats dispute that perspective, arguing that outrage over the Blake shooting and related violence will mobilize not only Black voters but also White suburban voters sickened by racial injustice.

“I don’t think suburban women are dumb,” said Johnson, the Democratic state senator. “I don’t think they think it’s OK for somebody to be shot in the back seven times by the police.”

Demonstrations over the Blake shooting could galvanize African-American voters in the state, buttressing Biden, said Thomas Holbrook, political science professor at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. “One possibility is that it provides more fuel for voter mobilization drives in Black communities,” Holbrook said.

He added that the Milwaukee Bucks’ decision not to participate in a playoff game Wednesday may also raise the prominence of police violence as a political issue, given the team’s popularity in Wisconsin. “That’s a really big deal,” Holbrook said. “That’s going to bring a lot more attention to the whole issue.”