Wisconsin’s Door County voters are tired of politics and want better options

DOOR COUNTY, Wis. — She didn’t trust the government. She didn’t trust the news. She didn’t know whom to trust, so Kathy Nichols eased into the armchair facing her psychic.

“What comes up in my future?” she asked.

Outside, the autumn sky was gray, and things at home were rough, and her television blared chatter about the House speaker drama or the New Jersey senator accused of trading influence for gold bars or the people running for president — all of whom she disliked.

In the vanilla-scented office of Abby Rose Spirit, under the glow of Turkish ceiling lights, she tapped her white Skechers on an Oriental rug and listened to a voice she found soothing.

“You know how they have those amusement park cars?” the psychic asked, leaning in. “It’s like you’re in the go-kart and you feel like something is going to smash into you.”

Yes, Nichols thought: Navigating life on Wisconsin’s northeastern thumb was stressful enough. Why did she have to worry about the country’s chaos, too?

“It’s overwhelming,” she agreed.

Kathy Nichols, left, gets a reading from Abby Rose Spirit in Door County, Wis., on Oct. 12.

The presidential election is less than a year away, and Americans are drained. Almost two-thirds say they always or often feel “exhausted” when thinking about politics, according to a recent Pew survey, while more than half say they feel “angry.” Trust in the nation’s institutions has plunged to the lowest point in nearly seven decades, the poll found, with respondents describing the landscape in overwhelmingly negative terms: Divisive. Corrupt. Messy.

A rising share of Americans, meanwhile, now identify as politically independent, according to Gallup’s latest annual snapshot, as the major parties’ front-runners remain unpopular. When other pollsters this year asked people to describe President Biden, the most common labels were “old” and “confused,” while former president Donald Trump was viewed as “corrupt” and “dishonest.”

Similar sentiments abound in Door County, a slice of peninsula between Green Bay and Lake Michigan with a stubborn independent streak. It’s the swingiest place in the perennial battleground of Wisconsin and one of nine U.S. counties that has backed every presidential election’s winner since 2000.

In interviews this fall with The Washington Post, dozens of residents in the community of roughly 30,000 said they’re tired of America’s turmoil. The pandemic and inflation have already rattled folks, and the broader political backdrop — the impeachments, Trump’s torrent of falsehoods about the 2020 election, the Capitol insurrection, the band of hard-right Republicans ousting their speaker — has blocked out notice of what both sides cast as accomplishments, such as the billions of dollars poured into updating the nation’s roads, bridges and ports. Even as the economy grows at the strongest pace in two years, and jobs continue to proliferate, signs of progress are easy to miss amid what voters see as screaming matches.

They long for compromise. They want to feel heard and understood. Most Americans, for instance, desire access to abortion, tighter restrictions on guns and affordable health care. Many wonder why our laws don’t reflect that.

The emerging choices for the 2024 race further sour the mood. Support for Trump in Door County tends to be stronger in the south, a redder expanse of dairy farms, while Biden is more embraced in the north, a bluer enclave of lakefront vacation homes. A common curiosity, however, unites Republicans and Democrats: Why aren’t there better options?

Nichols, a 58-year-old caregiving service manager in the city of Sturgeon Bay, sees Biden as “not super impressive” at a time when she aches to be reassured. She wants a leader who can bring the sparring factions together — a feat no one seems to be close to accomplishing. (Her favorite thing about Biden, though: “He’s not always in the news.”) Trump, on the other hand, was guilty of “mean girl behavior,” she thought, picking fights with even his own party while racking up criminal charges.

The government in general reminded her of the reality series “Big Brother” — “with all the lies and deals behind the scenes.”

“You don’t know where to turn or who to believe,” she said.

A self-described middle-of-the-road voter, Nichols recalled feeling calmer during Barack Obama’s administration, when Washington dysfunction seemed less glaring. Or at least less in her face. Now, she resented having to fret about her rising grocery bill and potential government shutdowns.

“Yeah, you’re really going through it with frustration,” the psychic told her.

Nichols nodded.

“You’ve got to accept people for how they show up,” the psychic continued. “You can’t expect more from them.”

People walk through Sister Bay in Door County, Wis., on Oct. 11.

Passing the baton

Susan Kohout saw herself in the leading candidates, which was why she thought, “What are they doing?”

At 77, the retired teacher is the same age as Trump. She’s three years younger than Biden. And she had been telling people plainly: It was time to prepare for the final chapter of her life.

“When are you moving?” her physical therapist asked one morning while Kohout, prone on a padded exam table, tested out a new sleep position.

“Next July,” she replied, wedging a pillow between her knees.

She and her husband planned to join their younger son in Arkansas. They didn’t want to leave Door County — their community of four decades, their ranch house in the woods — but the couple worried about the frailties of old age. Kohout used to drive four hours round-trip to care for her mother. She didn’t want her two kids to inherit the same long-distance burden.

She thought of this during her PT session, moving through exercises to keep her mobile longer — “It feels like there are marbles rolling around my left knee,” she remarked — and at meetings with the nonpartisan League of Women Voters, which is tasked with boosting civic engagement. Kohout, an independent, served as head of the local chapter.

Bob and Susan Kohout at their home in Door County, Wis.
Susan Kohout organizes family photos in preparation for their move to Arkansas.
Kohout works with physical therapist Jean Koelbl at Door County Medical Center.

“I don’t think these men should be running again,” she told members. “They won’t be around to see the consequences of their decisions.”

Biden and Trump should pass the baton to someone who connects with younger generations, she thought. Sticking around as their approval ratings sag is a blow to collective morale.

One of the league’s outreach strategists brought a Washington Post article about Capitol Hill clashes to one of their October meetings and circled the phrase “trust deficit.”

Talking about Washington, they decided, isn’t the best way to nudge Door County voters to the polls. But when the group focused on hot-button issues, Kohout noticed, residents seemed eager to listen. Chairs filled up at their event focused on mental health and opioid addiction.

During her last nine months in charge, she planned to keep fostering those discussions.

“People see the candidates as distant,” Kohout said. “The issues are what they deal with every day.”

The sun goes down in Ephraim, Wis., on Oct. 11.

‘A dumpster fire’

Michelle Henderson set one rule for her tavern: Don’t mix alcohol with politics.

“It will cause fights here,” said the 57-year-old owner of the Hen House Bar and Grill in the rural village of Forestville. “I’ve seen it.”

Her regulars are a mix of Republicans and Democrats, she said, and Henderson, who preferred not to reveal her political leaning, was tired of everyone freaking out. She tried to make people laugh with signs like: Now serving Pumpkin Spice … nothing! (Drink whiskey.) That chalkboard-scrawled line came from her husband, who scrubs the hardwood floors each morning with lavender soap.

They didn’t talk about the president and his rivals at home, either. Why taint precious downtime with frustration? The Hen House must remain a politics-free zone not just for business, she said, but also for everyone’s mental well-being.

Henderson had liked Trump’s outspokenness at first — she would have voted for him in 2020 but was recovering from surgery on Election Day. Now she resents his “cockiness” and wishes he and other politicians would channel more energy into addressing the soaring cost of food. Two months ago, she’d had to lift the price of every menu item by 50 cents, and now her barbecue chicken Mother Clucker sandwich cost $10.75. Customers, she knew, wouldn’t pay much more than that.

She wasn’t sure whom to back next year. At least the congressional candidate who frequented her bar wasn’t so bad.

Owner Michelle Henderson opens the Hen House Bar and Grill in Forestville, Wis.
Henderson has implemented a “no politics” rule at the tavern.
Congressional candidate Jacob VandenPlas plays bingo at the Hen House.

“How many watermelons should I bring?” that candidate, Jacob VandenPlas, was asking. He sipped Maker’s Mark on the rocks as they chatted about the tavern’s upcoming Watermelon Fest, a fundraiser featuring a seed-spitting tournament.

“How many do you have?” Henderson replied.

The proceeds would benefit the former Army infantryman’s nonprofit, a farm where veterans learn to grow produce and cope with post-traumatic stress disorder. VandenPlas, 39, had received that diagnosis in 2008 after his second tour in Iraq.

The longtime Libertarian saw the major parties as broken and rife with warmongers, which was why he sought a House seat last year representing Wisconsin’s 8th Congressional District. Rep. Mike Gallagher (R) won, but VandenPlas had managed to net 10 percent of the vote. Next year, he thought, looked more promising.

“More people can see that our current system is a dumpster fire,” he said.

VandenPlas was heartened by the attention on Robert F. Kennedy Jr.’s presidential bid as an independent. The environmental lawyer with the famous last name has raised more campaign money in the most recent fundraising period than all others running for the White House except Biden, Trump and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R).

Jacob VandenPlas runs a farm where veterans find community and healing from PTSD while learning to grow produce.
Nathan VandenPlas, Jacob’s 15-year-old son, harvests vegetables at the farm, Door County Farm for Vets, in Sturgeon Bay.
Phil Anderson, a Senate candidate running as a Libertarian for the fourth time, speaks with fellow Libertarian Jacob VandenPlas.

VandenPlas’s political mentor, Phil Anderson, a Senate candidate on his fourth run for office as a Libertarian, was also tracking signs of enthusiasm. Six months into his campaign and a year before the election, Anderson had raised about $13,500 — more money than his team had garnered during the entirety of his last run in 2018.

During a recent visit to the farm, as the pair sampled this season’s cherry tomatoes, Anderson urged VandenPlas to launch more than the purely social media campaign he had been mulling. (It was hard to travel for events, VandenPlas reasoned, when greenhouse chores started at sunrise.)

“You never really know when there’s gonna be a big sea change,” Anderson pushed back, pressing him to “go all in.”

VandenPlas didn’t mention this at the bar, though — not when dozens of patrons around him were enjoying a peaceful night of bingo. The Hen House was oddly quiet as everyone stamped their sheets.

“Hey,” he said to Henderson, who was sliding someone a Spotted Cow beer. “Got any use for a giant box of jalapeños?”

Sturgeon Bay in Door County, Wis.

Who can fix the conflict?

The days were getting shorter and colder, making it harder to stay upbeat, so Owen Alabado was relieved to organize an evening of distraction.

People were cramming into the Peach Barn brewery for his improv troupe’s first-anniversary show, and the 43-year-old comedian was so grateful for the outlet, he teared up talking about it.

“We’re giving people the ability to come and laugh and forget about all the bulls—,” said Alabado, a Democrat who by day runs a farm-to-table restaurant and a nonprofit supporting LGBTQ+ rights.

The LGBTQ+ community here is small, he said. As a gay man with Filipino roots in the overwhelmingly White town of Baileys Harbor, he stood out. It felt personal when Door County’s board of supervisors voted in September to restrict what flags can be raised on county poles, effectively banning the Pride rainbow. Then lawmakers in Washington elected a House speaker who had previously suggested criminalizing gay sex.

Alabado was sick of the division, he said. Neither party, he thought, seemed capable of fixing it. He wished he could be excited to vote for Biden, rather than feel obligated to do so to defend “basic human rights.”

“I can’t really speak to anything he has done,” he said, “because I’ve tuned it out, like a lot of people have. We’re so tired of the us-against-them politics.”

He’d grown weary of career politicians in Washington.

“They’re just archaic dinosaurs of humans who don’t really care about the people,” he said. “They care about their win.”

Owen Alabado performs with his improv troupe the Knobs at the Peach Barn Farmhouse and Brewery in Sister Bay, Wis.
“We’re giving people the ability to come and laugh,” Alabado, left, said.

When Alabado shared the spotlight with the Knobs, he forgot about the stress.

“It’s National Coming Out Day,” he told the crowd. “Unfortunately, I’m straight … jacket-friendly. I’d date a crazy person.”

The room cracked up.

He avoided politics in his comedy. His audience was usually an ideological blend, sharing beers and slapping their knees in laughter. “It’s like living in a Hallmark movie,” Alabado thought of the scene.

He didn’t want to ruin anyone’s good time with a reminder of the fractured world outside.

Wind blows through a cornfield in Door County, Wis.

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