WEST SALEM – At an outdoor rally at a race track, President Donald Trump declared Tuesday he was protecting America from “a left-wing mob” and predicted talk of the coronavirus pandemic would stop the day after next week’s election.
“COVID, COVID, COVID,” Trump said. “You know when they’re going to stop talking about it so much? November 4th.”
He made the statement just hours after Wisconsin officials announced a record number of daily COVID-19 cases and deaths.
His stop in West Salem, a town of about 5,000 people, was a reminder that he won Wisconsin four years ago along the highways and backroads that wind through the bluffs and farmland of western Wisconsin.
Less than 15 minutes into his speech, Trump paused to play a lengthy montage of Democratic nominee Joe Biden’s comments about China and fracking.
“I’m the only one standing between you and the left-wing mob, I hate to tell you,” Trump said from a stage at the center of the La Crosse Fairgrounds Speedway track.
As the sun began to set, Trump’s motorcade drove along the race track and up to the stage in the heart of the La Crosse media market, a bellwether that has voted for every winning candidate in Wisconsin for governor and president for more than three decades.
This region of western Wisconsin is full of voters who supported former President Barack Obama in 2012 and Trump in 2016. Of the state’s five media markets, La Crosse has experienced the largest shift — voting Democratic by 10 points in 2012 and Republican by 5 points in 2016.
The region swung again in 2018, narrowly supporting Democratic Gov. Tony Evers after previously backing former GOP Gov. Scott Walker in 2014.
Trump is hoping for another swing, back to his 2016 victory.
His visit to West Salem is part of a relentless series of visits to a state he won by less than a percentage point last time. Trump was in Janesville a little over a week ago and Waukesha on Saturday.
Whether the president’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic is a top priority for voters in western Wisconsin could depend on where they live in the market.
The city of La Crosse in recent weeks had one of the highest rates of infection in the country — pushing officials there to ask Trump to move a rally he planned to hold early this month at the county’s airport. But other counties in the region have experienced some of the lowest rates in the state.
Biden for President Wisconsin State Director Danielle Melfi said Tuesday, when Wisconsin hit record cases, deaths and hospitalizations, that Trump’s response to the pandemic has “yielded devastating results.”
“When Wisconsin sends Joe Biden to the White House, we’ll have a President who will listen to the experts, trust the science, and get this virus under control,” Melfi said in a statement.
More than 5,000 new cases were reported in Wisconsin on Tuesday and 64 new deaths. Hospitalizations topped 1,300 and five patients are now in a field hospital constructed to provide relief for overwhelmed health care facilities.
Trump called for opening schools and claimed the country was “rounding the corner” on COVID-19 even though cases are at a record high and aren’t showing signs of slowing.
“We will vanquish the virus,” Trump said. Earlier that day, Wisconsin’s chief medical officer called the situation “a nightmare.”
Trump also took shots at Democratic Gov. Tony Evers, questioning whether he would win re-election in 2022. He spoke as if there is a statewide lockdown, saying, “Let’s get your governor to open it up.”
Evers’ administration issued a stay-at-home order in the spring, but the state Supreme Court overturned it in May after Republican lawmakers. More recently, Evers put capacity limits on bars, restaurants and other businesses, but those have been put on hold by a judge.
Evers’ order requiring masks indoors remains in place but has also been challenged in court.
Many went without masks at the race track, where “Make America Great Again” hats outnumbered face coverings.
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Radio advertisements for legislative candidates in the area focus on the pandemic but also on whether pre-existing health conditions will continue to be covered in light of Trump’s effort to eliminate the Affordable Care Act.
Trump made his visit a day after the Senate confirmed Amy Comey Barrett, his third appointee to the Supreme Court. She will join the other justices in hearing arguments a week after the election to decide whether to uphold the Affordable Care Act.
Footage of Barrett played for the crowd on a giant screen ahead of Trump’s appearance.
His stop also came a day after the Supreme Court — just before Barrett was confirmed — issued a 5-3 decision that kept in place Wisconsin’s voting rules. Republicans sought that outcome as Democrats tried to reinstate a lower court order that would have allowed ballots that arrive after Election Day to be counted if they were postmarked by then.
“We had a great ruling, right here, we had a great ruling. Got that yesterday. The Supreme court said, ‘Nope, that’s your date — Nov. 3, that’s your date,'” he said.
The region is full of dairy farmers who have seen their way of life evaporate in recent years under pressures of low milk prices, overproduction and failing export markets.
Trump has touted a new trade agreement with Canada and Mexico as a lifeline for these farmers, but some don’t see the new markets as large enough to stabilize their industry.
“Looking at what it’s really doing for us — not a whole lot,” Darin Von Ruden, a Westby dairy farmer and president of the Wisconsin Farmers Union, said. “The current administration is just making it worse, and we need to get to a point where we can actually trust what’s coming out of the White House.”
But the Dairy Business Association’s vice president, Wisconsin dairy farmer Amy Penterman, praised the deal when it was signed into law.
“The deal has been a long time in the making and we can finally celebrate,” she said in January. “Mexico is now our top dairy export market and Canada is number three. We need our neighbors and they need us.”
Craig Gilbert of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel contributed to this report.