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La Crosse, Wisconsin finds common ground in the midst of political division

Straddling the Mississippi River and the Wisconsin-Minnesota border it marks is the La Crosse Metropolitan Area. Boasting a population of about 135,000 people, 120,000 of whom live on the Wisconsin side, the moderately sized metroplex offers a bellwether look at how politics shape southern Minnesota and Western Wisconsin as a whole.

More than half of the denizens of the area live in anchor city La Crosse or its smaller sister, Onalaska, along the eastern banks of the nation’s East/West dividing line — the Mississippi River. The waterway is a major economic driver of the region, featuring shipping and tourism as well as beautiful scenery unrivaled by most other cities along the river basin.

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The Cass Street Bridge

Not only does La Crosse feature three college campuses, but several national and international companies have their headquarters here. Industry titans Trane (known for HVAC) and the nation’s largest privately held conglomerate Cargill (now headquartered in Minneapolis) had their starts in La Crosse, and healthcare giants Mayo Clinics, Gundersen Health, and Logistics Health Incorporated all maintain regional campuses in the city.

There is also a heavy transportation presence here, as a major hub for shipping by rail, river, or road between Minneapolis and Chicago, among other cities, and a large blue-collar class and support jobs keep the unemployment levels at an astonishingly low 2.7 percent as of March 2017. But the relatively prosperous economy belies that political turmoil that can come with being a border town between the most reliably blue state in presidential elections over the last 45 years and a competitive blue state that can flip red, as it did in 2016.

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The Amtrak station

Despite Minnesota’s reputation for being the bluest of the blue states, it was its Houston County that went for Donald Trump in 2016, while Minnesota as a whole went blue, but La Crosse County favored Hillary Clinton as its own state went red. And while both states were fairly close overall — both were among the last to be called — both of their counties in the La Crosse area were overwhelming wins for their ultimate victor.

Midwestern values are paradoxically the reason for both the left and right leaning residents of the area. Those on the left point to their religious and general accepting nature as reasons why they support things like The Affordable Care Act and protections for minorities, while those on the right use the same arguments in favor of religious liberty and conservative stances on social issues such as abortion and same-sex marriage. But perhaps the most divisive issue transcends party lines — whether, as mostly Wisconsinites, they should support the Green Bay Packers, or the much nearer Minnesota Vikings just up the river.

The most salient issue for most denizens of the area, however, is the possible water shortage that has been predicted over the past few years. Pollution and lead contamination top the list of concerns, and aquifers are beginning to feel the pinch of population growth while still trying to meet the needs of farmers and ranchers in the area. Paradoxically, a metropolitan area sitting along one of the largest freshwater waterways in the world may not even have enough clean water to drink in a few years.

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University of Wisconsin’s Main Hall

Republican Governor Scott Walker, already somewhat unpopular, has nonetheless held on through a couple of recalls and a failed presidential bid. His maine power base are die-hard conservatives and pro-business leaders, but this is often at the expense of environmental cleanliness. Walker has been loath to hand out fines and penalties to polluters of the waterways, and his declaration that Wisconsin is “Open for business” might be good for the economy, it certainly could come at a cost.

But many others in the area brush aside the concerns, saying that they are, for the most part, overblown. They believe that the regulations already in place are deterring the worst polluters, and that much of the hype is mostly overreaction to the lead contamination in Flint, Michigan.

Walker’s other major issue that has caused division within the state has been his union busting and chopping of government spending. Critics on the left believe he has crippled the state’s education and regulatory powers, while his supporters believe that he is simply cutting wasteful spending and saving the taxpayers millions, if not billions, of dollars in the long run. It was these actions that ultimately led to the failed recall attempts against the governor. For his part, Walker has recently proposed increasing spending on education, crediting his fiscal policies  and initial cuts as being the source of the funds.

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Aerial view of the riverfront

Walker remains fairly unpopular in the left-of-center La Crosse area, primarily thanks to its heavy healthcare and education industries. Still, the people of the La Crosse area are used to living in a politically divided area, and few bear their neighbors ill will for their beliefs. Indeed, the city has been evenly divided long enough to know that arguing amongst themselves will get you nowhere. While most are plenty happy enough to have a rousing debate with their friends and family over a beer or two, few take it personally, preferring to let their votes do their fighting for them.

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