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As the presidential election nears, Morning Edition is visiting swing counties in swing states for our series First and Main. We're listening to voters where they live — to understand what's shaping their thinking this election year. This week, we're spending time in Winnebago County, Wis., where we spoke with two women — one Democrat, one Republican — who embody their state's Midwestern charm and spirit of self-reliance.
Half an hour south of Oshkosh, Wis., in a rural area of Winnebago County, a family-owned fish restaurant sits on the shore of Lake Winnebago.
"This whole system — Lake Winnebago, the upper river lakes — is great right now with fishing, duck hunting," Shawn Wendt, whose family owns the restaurant, says as he walks on a dock over the lake. "You have your different types of pan fish, the perch and the bluegills — they are tremendous — and then the walleyes. Very good summer of walleye fishing out here on Lake Winnebago."
Wendt walks from the dock over to some picnic tables, where a few rambunctious children have built a makeshift fort. His two sons, ages 9 and 6, are playing with Nerf guns.
The Wendts' restaurant is a family affair. It's been in business for five decades. And Wendt tells us the person we really need to meet is his mom, Linda Wendt.
She sneaks to the table amid the barrage of Nerf bullets. She's wearing a turquoise sundress with white-framed sunglasses, and she has long, brightly painted fingernails.
At the restaurant, Linda Wendt is the person in charge, overseeing a staff of almost 50 people. And that, more than anything, has made her feel a connection to Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney.
"He has done what I've done, so I can relate to him. I mean, he's made a payroll, you know? He's hired, fired people; he's [run] businesses, many businesses; he did the Olympics. I mean, I guess I look at that — he knows what business goes through and what it takes to run a business," she says.
"President Obama doesn't know that, and that doesn't mean one way or the other thing — that's not his fault. He just doesn't know what it takes to do it — in that, yeah, a business probably does make more than the people that you're hiring, but that's what it's about.
"They can work hard to get to where you are, if they so desire. You know, I mean, we're a free country, and that's what it's about, I think."
Social Issues And Self-Reliance
Asked what she thinks about social issues as the campaigns battle to appeal to women, Wendt says:
"Right now, they're saying that women are leaning more toward the Democrat vote ... because Republicans are against women and, oh my goodness, don't want them to have birth control or what have you.
"But I guess I don't feel that way. I don't think religion needs to be in politics together like that. ... As a woman, ... I don't expect you to pay for what I need — I mean, regardless of whether it is contraception or whatever it might be in life. And again, if we're talking about contraception, there's tons and tons of places you can go to that it's free."
Wendt says self-reliance is a very important concept in her life.
"When I took over this business, I was scared. I thought, 'How am I going to do this?' ... And then I thought, 'You know what? I know how I'm going to do it. It's just who I am and what I'm going to do. And I'm going to struggle, and that's what it's about. And I'm going to succeed.'
"And I did. And that's what you've got to do. You've got to tell yourself you can do it — no matter who you are, you can do it if you want to. That's just how I feel. That's how I was raised."
Different Ways Of Thinking
Wendt was raised in a family that values hospitality. That explains why, in the thick of an election year, there's not a single campaign sign on the property.
The way Wendt sees it, why risk turning off even a single potential customer, especially in a political swing county?
Then again, she probably wouldn't have put up an Obama poster anyway.
"Well, of course, he's a dynamic speaker. I mean, he's excellent. But my thinking and his thinking are different," she says.
"He doesn't understand small business — or any business. He doesn't understand what it takes to run that business. I mean, that's huge for me because I am a business owner, so that would be the top of my list. But my moral views are totally different than his. ... There are some issues that I think he's right on, but very few."
Those moral issues include things like abortion.
"I don't believe in abortion. I believe in life, and whatever you can do to keep the life going on," she says. "This is, again, a free country that — we need population, we need more people to keep the country going. And if anybody can get an abortion at any time or any other ways of stopping life, what is the point?
"I mean, and again, I believe there are certain times — when, you know, the mother's life is at stake or whatever ... I get that. But ... that would be one really big issue really where we're opposite."
A Business Owner's Perspective
Wendt says, as a business owner, she feels that Romney would understand better where she's coming from, "whereas President Obama doesn't get it."
"And you know what? Lot of times I vote for the person, and I have, and I give money to people that are on my page. And it doesn't matter ... what political party they're from," she says.
She says she's supported Democrats in the past, including President Clinton.
What was different about him?
"I felt like he understood me and what I was doing for a living," she says. "I don't feel that way with President Obama. I just don't. There's nothing that tells me that he understands."
When it comes to the federal health care law passed under Obama, Wendt says she's not sure how it will affect her yet, since it hasn't been fully implemented.
"But, well, it won't be good," she says. "It'll cost more. Supposedly with a small business, if you have over 50 employees, then you need to do something — it'll affect those. I don't have 50 yet, I have 46, but you know what, I won't get 50. You know what I mean? If it means I'm going to have to pay. And a lot of small businesses just won't hire anybody else."
Wendt says it does bother her that Romney supported a law similar to the federal health care overhaul when he was governor of Massachusetts.
"And of course, he's somewhat backing away from it," she says.
But she says she would like to hear more from him on the issue: "That's one area I don't feel real comfortable about with Mr. Romney."
As we finish our conversation, Wendt heads inside the restaurant to make sure her kitchen is getting that famous fried perch ready for the lunch crowd.