ELKHORN, Wis. — Donald Trump was supposed to attend the First Congressional District Fall Festival here Saturday afternoon, marking his first appearance with House Speaker Paul Ryan.
However, Ryan disinvited Trump the previous night amid the firestorm over a 2005 tape obtained by the Washington Post showing the GOP nominee bragging — in shockingly crass terms — about kissing and groping women. Trump apologized, but that did little to quell the whirlwind of controversy.
Trump’s vice presidential nominee, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, was then set to replace Trump on the program. On Saturday morning, he too suddenly dropped out. Throughout the day, Republican leaders passionately condemned Trump, with many announcing that they would not vote for their own party’s standard-bearer in November.
But at the festival here in the Midwest, the people least concerned with the future of the Republican Party seemed to be local Republican voters, who were left to mill about pumpkins and hay bales, sipping apple cider and discussing the latest development in the roller-coaster 2016 election cycle.
By the time attendees began filing into the Walworth County fairgrounds, a dozen Republican lawmakers had either condemned Trump’s remarks or pulled their support of his candidacy. Even more followed suit over the course of the afternoon.
Yet the divide between the party’s base and its leadership could not have been clearer, as most attendees passed off Trump’s comments as either a regrettable mistake 11 years ago or an example of boys being boys.
“Everybody has said something in their time that we’ve regretted,” Rhonda Ellis explained, saying she cried when she heard Trump would not attend. “I’m a woman — I’m not offended.”
Others were even more outspoken. Two men went as far as to say they liked the tape, as it showed a more personable and relatable side of Trump, who has vowed to stay in the race despite pressure from his own party to bow out.
“I thought it was fantastic. He’s a human being, isn’t he?” Dennis Kurbowski said. “Tell me you haven’t said something like that. Tell me 99.9 percent of American people haven’t said something like that … male or female.”
In a tweet Saturday night, Trump thanked the crowd in Elkhorn for voicing their support:
Thank you to my great supporters in Wisconsin. I heard that the crowd and enthusiasm was unreal!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 9, 2016
Ryan, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson all disagreed, releasing statements Friday sharply criticizing Trump for the comments on the leaked tape. The trio, however, made little mention of the controversy during the festival proceedings.
Ryan was the lone member to even mention Trump. After taking the stage to a mixture of enthusiastic cheers and boos, he said there was “an elephant in the room.”
“It’s a troubling situation. I’m serious,” Ryan said. “I stand by what I said [in the statement]. … But that’s not why we’re here.”
Trump supporters heckled Ryan throughout his remarks, accusing him of turning his back on the GOP. The speaker spent the bulk of his speech on the House Republicans’ “Better Way” agenda. He did proclaim that Wisconsin will “need to deliver its 10 electoral votes” in the presidential race — indicating he had not fully bailed on Trump’s candidacy.
But Trump supporters still disavowed Ryan for not explicitly supporting Trump in his remarks.
“All these people who joined the party, they’re leaving,” Tina Gorzalski said. “They’re saying they’re done.”
Walker and Johnson did not mention Trump or the presidential election. Walker focused on state-level issues and Johnson focused on down ballot-races, including his tight reelection race against Democrat Russ Feingold.
Wisconsin Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner did not directly mention the Trump scandal but tangled with a heckler who accused Ryan of being a supporter of Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton.
“Listen to me, please!” Sensenbrenner said, chastising the person interrupting. “Be respectful, we need more of that. … Clean up your act.”
Not all agreed with the protesters, with other voters merely resigned to the state of affairs. Dan Fetting said he still supported Trump and that the 2005 remarks were just who the business mogul is — for better or for worse.
“Who hasn’t boasted in life about something? They boast about the economy, giving jobs and killing terrorists. Having some girls — well, to me it’s all the same,” Fetting said. “It’s too late to turn around. We have to go with the candidate they nominated. He’s going to continue to make remarks whether he’s president or not, and we just have to live with that.”