MADISON, Wis. — Wisconsin Democrats are uniting for an online but abbreviated state convention with a primary goal in mind: defeating President Donald Trump.
They originally planned to hold a weekend meeting at a Wisconsin Dells convention center, situated in the self-proclaimed "water park capital of the world," to serve as a rallying cry and set-up for the national convention in Milwaukee later this summer.
The coronavirus pandemic took care of that.
While Democrats are still planning to meet in person in Milwaukee in August, the state convention was scaled back from a two-day event to a two-hour virtual meeting Friday night. There will be recorded speeches from presumptive presidential nominee Joe Biden, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and all of the top elected Democrats in Wisconsin.
"The message is just the importance of November," said Democratic Rep. Mark Pocan, who represents the Madison area in Congress. "We've got a lot to do in a very new environment."
The coronavirus pandemic grounded Trump and Biden. But it also forced their advocates in Wisconsin and across the country to adjust as well, moving away from the tried-and-true campaign tactic of identifying crucial voters and knocking on their doors to other ways of making contact.
There are also fights over expanded absentee voting, with Democrats and their allies pushing for sweeping legal changes to make voting from home easier. Democrats were encouraged by liberal state Supreme Court candidate Jill Karofsky's win in the April election, where three quarters of voters cast absentee ballots. Trump and Republicans are fighting efforts to make it easier to vote by mail, both in Wisconsin and across the country.
"For every election in my lifetime, the focus is on getting people to the polls," said Wisconsin Democratic Party Chairman Ben Wikler. "Suddenly, this spring we were building a massive operation to help people vote from home."
Protests over the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police on May 25 sparked protests throughout Wisconsin and the world, adding another layer of uncertainty to the presidential race in an already volatile campaign season.
Democrats are trying to harness the energy of protesters to engage with voters, particularly African Americans, young people and women who sat out the 2016 election, when Trump won Wisconsin by fewer than 23,000 votes.
Pocan said 2016 was a "wake up call" for Democrats.
"People didn't get out and vote like they normally do in presidential elections," he said. "I think people really realized that you can't participate in democracy by not voting. You have to be an active participant to be heard."
Republicans will be active all over Wisconsin to try to deliver another win for Trump, said state GOP executive director Mark Jefferson. Enthusiasm among Wisconsin Republicans for Trump is "as strong as ever," putting Trump in a strong position to win the state again, he predicted.
"President Trump is going to get a lot of credit for keeping his eye on the economy throughout all of this and focusing on the need to restart the economy," Jefferson said. "I think Wisconsin voters have seen that."
Polls show Trump's approval rating in narrowly divided Wisconsin hasn't moved much at all the past four years. It stood at 47% in the most recent Marquette University Law School poll conducted in May, before Floyd's killing. Trump's approval rating for the past year has been within 2 percentage points of that, which is well within the poll's margin of error.
Trump's approval rating in Wisconsin peaked at 48% in January, has never gotten above 50%, and was as low as 41% in September 2018. Over 19 polls his approval rating has averaged 45%.
There's no doubt defeating Trump is the Democrats' prime objective in Wisconsin. Some other key races include:
— Defending U.S. Rep. Ron Kind's western Wisconsin seat in a district that Trump won by 4.5 points. Jefferson said the GOP has a "great shot" at defeating Kind with first-time candidate Derrick Van Orden. But Pocan said he knows of few members of Congress more connected to their districts than Kind and he will do everything he can to get reelected.
— Preventing Republicans from increasing their majorities in the Legislature high enough to be able to override any vetoes by Democratic Gov. Tony Evers. Republicans would need to pick up three seats in the Senate and just three in the Assembly.
Unlike the Democrats, who canceled their in-person state meeting, the Republicans plan to move ahead with a modified and condensed state convention in Green Bay the weekend of July 11.