I don't remember if Our President had an event at Serb Hall (but never on a Friday, that would antagonize enthusiasts of their fish fry) but populist Republicans began contesting the territory a long time ago. Let Milwaukee politics guru Bob Dohnal tell the story.
When Ronald Reagan walloped Jimmy Carter in the 1980 presidential election, political experts “discovered” those voters for the first time: traditionally Democratic, working-class whites in Northern industrial states whose swing to Reagan blew open what had looked like a close election.Those pickup trucks were practical, how else schlep tool boxes and coils of wire around and bring home the deer in November? Mr Dohnal had to cue his Republican regulars to code-shift without seeming condescending.
I could have told them about the Reagan Democrats months earlier, because I helped organize their coming out party. It took place on March 26, 1980, at the American Serb Hall on Milwaukee’s Southwest Side.
As chair of Reagan’s 1976 and 1980 campaigns in Wisconsin’s old 4thCongressional District, which covered the southern half of Milwaukee County, I was convinced this traditional Democratic stronghold was ready to respond to Reagan.
I had a drug store in West Allis, a predominantly Democratic blue-collar suburb, and dealt every day with the people who eventually became the Reagan Democrats. They were plumbers and workers at factories like Allis-Chalmers and Kearney and Trecker. They tended to be very patriotic. Many had served in the military. They were hunters and liked to fish. They drove pickups, something country club Republicans in Milwaukee never did.
Previous Republican presidential campaigns had been reluctant to reach out directly to these voters. But as far back as Richard Nixon’s successful races, I knew that a GOP candidate speaking at Serb Hall, where no Republican office-seeker had ever tread, would have a tremendous impact on southern Milwaukee County.
“Serb Hall,” former vice president Hubert Humphrey said in 1972. “If these walls could talk, what stories they could tell of the great Democrats who have campaigned here.”
Before they came, I told the people from Brookfield—a strongly conservative, upscale suburb—“don’t come in a suit.” We didn’t want to look like the John Anderson crowd that had met elsewhere on the south side the week before.You'll find a lot of consonant clusters, Pabst-drinkers, and eaters of kielbasa or bratwurst in Wausau (paper mills), Waupaca, and Neenah (garbage trucks and manhole cover lids). Mr Reagan's message likely was "the Democrats left me," and these days the coastal deplorable-shamers might not belong to country clubs, but they've brought the snobby attitude to the Democrats.
Describing the south siders who packed Serb Hall that night, [Reagan biographer] Craig Shirley remarked that the Milwaukee telephone directory was “jammed with listings of people whose names looked as if they’d gone through a Mixmaster. The scions of the Republican Party didn’t want these people with funny last names traipsing around their country clubs. These people drank cheap beer and ate kielbasa! Slavs who could or should have been Republicans were not, largely because the snobby Republicans didn’t want them.”
Donald Pfarrer wrote in the Milwaukee Journal that “it wouldn’t be accurate to say that Reagan had tailored his speech to the Serb Hall crowd. He struck the same themes and adopted the same tone as on earlier campaign stops in Wausau, Waupaca and Neenah.”
But that didn’t matter. As Pfarrer wrote, “the place was as jammed as it had been that night in 1972 when the campaigns of Humphrey and George McGovern met there. If there was a so-called country club Republican among the 500 or 600 working people, he had left his Harris tweeds at home.”