Discover more from The Recombobulation Area
5 things to watch for at the Republican Debate in Milwaukee
Debate Day is here. Let's recombobulate.
The Recombobulation Area is a ten-time Milwaukee Press Club award-winning weekly opinion column and online publication written, edited and published by veteran Milwaukee journalist Dan Shafer. Learn more about it here.
The first Republican Debate of the 2024 election cycle is just hours away from beginning. Here are a few things we’ll be watching for.
1. The elephant not in the room
Circumstances surrounding the Milwaukee debate are undeniably weird.
The frontrunner candidate who is lapping the field in the polls will not be at the debate. Furthermore, that candidate is the former president who still hasn’t accepted the results of his loss in 2020, and there’s no evidence to suggest that he would ever concede in a primary. But with the lead Donald Trump currently has, he might not ever be in a position where he would have to concede. His lead is currently gargantuan. And instead of participating in the debate, he has pre-recorded an interview with former Fox host Tucker Carlson that will air as counter-programming.
So, this is all very strange. It’s going to be a weird debate. And that’s before getting into any of the host of legal issues Trump is facing, all playing out in real time alongside the campaign and the theatrics of the debate. But so much of everything when it comes to Trump is unprecedented and bizarre, perhaps we should be used to this kind of strangeness by now.
The other factor to consider in the absence of the former president is how the nine candidates who will be on stage will talk about the not-attending frontrunner. Typically, in a primary debate like this one, candidates will go after the person in the lead. So, how will these candidates talk about Trump?
As a reminder, here are the candidates who will be on stage on Wednesday, as the RNC announced Monday night:
Of that group, it seems likely that Christie and Hutchinson will have some unabashed criticism of Donald Trump, and perhaps Mike Pence would bring some as well in certain circumstances, but by and large, candidates have thus far shied away from criticizing Trump during the campaign. Trump has remarked that this debate is really about who will be chosen as his vice presidential candidate — his campaign even released a special “vice presidential debate” website in advance of the event — and there might be some truth to that. Will that change under the bright lights of the debate stage? That has to be one of the big questions going into the night.
But the Republican Party of 2023 is Trump’s party, and in the big spectacle of the first debate, Trump isn’t going to be there. How candidates respond to that might just be the biggest national story of the night.
2. How will candidates talk about Milwaukee, and how will Milwaukee respond to the spectacle and the spotlight?
The biggest story locally, however, will be something quite different. Milwaukee is a city that is constantly thirsty for the national spotlight, and the city sure will have it on Wednesday night.
Let’s hope that’s a good thing.
Republicans don’t always talk about Milwaukee in the most positive light, and that’s putting it mildly. The worry among many in town is that these candidates will take the stage and bash the very city that’s playing host to their event. This is not an unjustified worry. This is also, of course, somewhat of a dress rehearsal for next year’s Republican National Convention, where much of that worry exists, too.
An issue the debate moderators will hopefully bring up is the constant false insinuations that the election in Wisconsin was stolen, a claim that often comes with conspiracies that specifically single out Milwaukee. While Trump won’t be there, it won’t be the least bit surprising if he uses that counter-programming opportunity to question the legitimacy of Milwaukee’s votes, something he has done continuously since the 2020 election, even as recently as May of this year at a CNN town hall event. Will Bret Baier and Martha McCallum bring that up, and will the often conspiratorial field of candidates address the issue in Trump’s absence? Republicans have never taken an opportunity to walk back any of their entirely false and incredibly insulting claims of a stolen election, so we’re not expecting them to start now.
For the larger Milwaukee of it all, there is going to be discussion of some economic impact of this debate, there’s going to be protests downtown (7 p.m. at Red Arrow Park), there is going to be a Democratic response (featuring some Dark Brandon billboards), and the city will have its night in the spotlight. This we all know.
We also know this is going to be the hottest day of the year in Milwaukee, and that is going to bring some complicating factors. If you’re going to be downtown, be prepared.
And while this connection hasn’t received as much attention as of late, you cannot overlook the importance of the city choosing to host the RNC and this debate as a factor toward the City and County sales tax deal, as I reported last year, with a source telling me any agreement on sales tax or shared revenue would be “dead in the water” without a “yes” vote on the RNC. With RNC coming and the ink now dry on those deals, that uncomfortable bargain has been made, benefitting both sides of the deal. Now, Milwaukee has to grit its teeth and get through this and hope the Republican Party doesn’t make a mockery of the city.
While this might not be Milwaukee’s favorite event of the year, the city is no stranger to hosting a big event. It’s the City of Festivals, after all. We should be able to handle this well, even if our Midwest nice happy face is concealing some true disdain beneath the surface.
LISTEN: Dan Shafer talks about the debate with Kristin Brey on “As Goes Wisconsin.”
3. Can Ron DeSantis turn things around?
Ron DeSantis’ campaign has been in a nosedive for months. In late March – before his botched official campaign announcement on the social media platform formerly known as Twitter – the Florida governor polled above 30% in national polling averages, about 15% behind Donald Trump. Now, DeSantis is at about 15%, and that’s more than 40% behind where Trump is currently polling.
Nevertheless, DeSantis is still significantly ahead of the rest of the field. He’s going to be positioned in the center of the stage. There may be more pressure on the Florida governor than on any other candidate in this debate.
He clearly needs some kind of a win. If he shines in the debate, that could really turn things around for him. But he already accidentally leaked his debate strategy, and wow, does it sound like a bad plan – defending Trump, specifically attacking Ramaswamy, etc. It’s the latest in a series of truly bizarre decisions from a campaign many deemed to be the most formidable to topple Trump.
If DeSantis does not do well in the debate, his floundering campaign could really be in serious trouble. It might be a make or break moment for him.
4. Which other candidate might break through?
While Trump is leading but absent and DeSantis is in desperate need of a strong performance to turn things around, the opportunity the debate presents for the rest of the field is a big one. No other candidate is polling in double digits in national polling averages.
But one other candidate has just jumped over the 10% mark in the Iowa polling average, per RealClearPolitics, and that is Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina. Scott had a strong showing in the always-crucial Selzer poll (released Monday), coming in a clear third place at 9%. Other Iowa polls have also shown Scott in double-digits. That Iowa poll can often be a bellwether of what’s happening throughout the Midwest, and if Scott is doing well there, it stands to reason that he could also connect with Wisconsin voters, as well. Scott has also seen a lot of ad support ahead of the debate.
Scott is a fascinating candidate, and one that could gain some momentum if he does well in the debate. There is some buzz for Scott as Trump’s potential VP selection, so it will be interesting to see if he is critical of Trump during the debate, since he really hasn’t been on the campaign trail, largely striking a more positive tone.
Scott’s fellow South Carolinian, former governor and former U.S. Ambassador Nikki Haley, will also be an interesting candidate to watch as the only woman on stage at the debate. She came in tied for fourth with Mike Pence at 6% in the Iowa poll, and has better name recognition than much of the field. Beyond those two, Vivek Ramaswamy certainly has a lot of buzz right now, but this will be a big test for the political newcomer. Pence is well-known, but not doing particularly well in the polls, considering his name recognition. Doug Burgum might not even be at the debate now, after reports say he was injured playing pick-up basketball and taken to a Milwaukee emergency room the day before the debate. Asa Hutchinson is far away from even getting close to contention.
So, my top non-DeSantis candidates to watch in this debate are Scott, Haley and Ramaswamy.
5. How will candidates pander to Wisconsin?
Wisconsin, as we all know, is a swing state. It is perhaps the nation’s swingiest state. Of the six presidential elections held in Wisconsin this century, four were decided by less than 1% (the two Obama elections being the exceptions).
So this state is important, not only as the state playing host to the debate and the RNC, but for strategic political reasons, as well. This has been among the very few tipping point states in the last two elections.
It’s going to be interesting to see how specific to Wisconsin voters the messaging from candidates gets from the candidates on stage. That goes true also for moderators. Will they be bringing any especially Wisconsin-ey questions to the stage? Issues like abortion rights, the economy and voting rights and democracy have been big ones in recent statewide races, and issues like manufacturing and agriculture policy are always important to this state. These types of policy questions could have an actual impact on voters.
The two-hour debate begins at 8 p.m. central time at Fiserv Forum in downtown Milwaukee. We’ll be in the building to cover the event. Stay tuned for more of our coverage throughout the day and week to come.
The Recombobulation Area is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support our work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
Dan Shafer is a journalist from Milwaukee who writes and publishes The Recombobulation Area. He’s also written for The New York Times, The Daily Beast, Heartland Signal, Belt Magazine, WisPolitics, and Milwaukee Record. He previously worked at Seattle Magazine, Seattle Business Magazine, the Milwaukee Business Journal, Milwaukee Magazine, and BizTimes Milwaukee. He’s won 17 Milwaukee Press Club Excellence in Journalism Awards. He’s on Twitter at @DanRShafer.
Already subscribe? Get a gift subscription for a friend!
Follow Dan Shafer on Twitter at @DanRShafer.