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Takeaways from the Republican Debate in Milwaukee: Part 1
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 Republican Debate in Milwaukee is now in the books. I was on site covering the event in the Media Room during the debate and around town all week, so let’s get into it with our takeaways from what went down.
1. All politics are national at the Fox News debate
The old adage in American politics is that “all politics is local.” But outside of a few stray references throughout the night, you could hardly have guessed that the first Republican debate of the 2024 presidential primary was playing out in the city of Milwaukee and the state of Wisconsin. There’s a shift we’ve seen in politics and media unfolding in recent years and last night’s Fox News debate further exemplified it: All politics is national now, especially when it comes to politics on the right.
That’s to be expected, to a certain extent. With this being the first debate of the presidential campaign, speaking to national issues comes with the territory. And debate moderators Bret Baier and Martha McCallum raised a number of policy questions with nationwide relevance — the economy, abortion, climate change, and so on.
The references to the state and city playing host were few. There was the video introduction showing sights from across the state, playing up the local angle (“beer and cheese, gridiron and grit”), some man-on-the-street interviews with people at the Brady Street Walgreens of all places, a mention of recent violence in the city (during a follow-up answer on a question on the “homelessness crisis”, never mind that Milwaukee has been nationally recognized for having the lowest unsheltered population of any large city in the nation), but many of the political issues that might be specific to Wisconsin — the tipping point electoral state in the nation, and one that often proves to be a Midwestern bellwether — didn’t really make the debate stage. Candidates didn’t really take any opportunity to pander to the local audience in attendance at Fiserv Forum, either. And let me tell you, as a city as thirsty as Milwaukee is for the national spotlight, some local pandering would have gone over extraordinarily well in that room.
Nevertheless, this debate proved to be yet another example of how national politics trumps local politics in 2020.
Hey, speaking of Trump…
2. Donald Trump wasn’t in Milwaukee, but he still won the debate
Donald Trump is the overwhelming frontrunner to win the Republican presidential primary. He’s more than 40 points ahead in national polls and is leading in every state poll. And in the Milwaukee debate, he was barely criticized by any of the other candidates running against him in the primary.
Even when Baier asked the question, “If former president Trump is convicted in a court of law, would you still support him as your party's choice?” six of the eight candidates raised their hands to say “yes” and the two candidates who didn’t were Chris Christie and Asa Hutchinson, who are both largely irrelevant in this campaign. Hutchinson even said Trump should be disqualified from running over his actions on Jan. 6 and he was met with a chorus of boos from the Milwaukee audience. That seems to be the state of things in the Republican Party in 2023.
And while Trump was absent from the debate stage, his presence was certainly felt throughout downtown Milwaukee in events surrounding the debate. Supporters and surrogates like Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor-Greene, Kari Lake and Donald Trump Jr. were all over the place in Milwaukee, giving interviews and showing support for their favored candidate. I also saw Matt Gaetz walking around downtown a couple times, once at the Hyatt lobby signing Trump supporters’ signs.
Trump’s campaign posted a website before the debate calling this the “2024 Vice Presidential Debate,” and that was a topic many of those surrogates and supporters raised.
Speaking to reporters in the Deer District before the debate, Taylor-Greene said, “I don’t think anyone on stage tonight is going to be vice president, but that’s up to president Trump.”
Trump Jr. was there in the Media Room after the debate, talking with reporters, too. He was especially critical of Ron DeSantis, saying he “sat there like a wallflower”, and heaped praise on Vivek Ramaswamy, saying he was the only candidate on stage who did well.
See some video I took of those remarks here.
Having these surrogates saturate local media and be ever-present around the debate was a smart strategy by the Trump campaign. And it wasn’t just those bigger-name supporters who were everywhere. There was more of a presence from Trump supporters outside the Deer District and around downtown than any other campaign, and it wasn’t even close. No other campaign had anything resembling the support Trump backers brought to downtown.
Over and over again, off ramps have emerged for the GOP to move away from Trump. They’ve never taken a single one. They had another opportunity in the debate last night, and candidates again didn’t seize it.
Which only goes to show the simple fact of this campaign, as true before the debate as true as it was after: Trump is the overwhelming favorite to win this primary. The Republican Party is Trump’s party now.
3. Vivek Ramaswamy stole the show (and is clearly running to be Trump’s VP pick)
“Vivek did what Ron DeSantis needed to do,” said Trump Jr. to reporters in the Media Room, praising the political newcomer candidate as the only one on stage who did well in the debate.
Ramaswamy was high energy and combative and kind of all over the place. He got into several direct back-and-forth arguments with other candidates, notably with Nikki Haley, Chris Christie, and several times with Mike Pence – the latter of which displayed a fascinating generational divide within the Republican Party.
But what Ramaswamy delivered, ultimately, was a performance, and one the Republicans in attendance appeared to be enjoying. His energetic contentiousness resonated. The party of Trump likes an outsider, and someone who appears to be a “fighter” of sorts, and Ramaswamy was the one responsible for the most viral moments of the debate. Maybe to me, he seemed like the most obnoxious guy at the Model UN convention (yes, I was a Model UN dork), pushing people into unnecessary and grating arguments, but to the Republican debate audience, he brought a much different energy than the other candidates on stage. He was effective.
He was also the candidate who heaped the most praise on Trump, calling him the “best president of the 21st century.”
What’s happening here is that Ramaswamy is clearly running to be Trump’s selection as vice president. Maybe it’s working. He got the Trump Jr. stamp of approval, and in that VP Debate poll from the Trump campaign, Ramaswamy came in far out in first with more than 63% of those online votes.
Ramaswamy might be creeping up on DeSantis in the polls, but considering how much praise and how little criticism he had for the frontrunner, this doesn’t seem like he’s all in to win the primary, but rather be all in to get on the ticket with Trump. It just might work.
4. DeSantis misses the moment
In our preview column yesterday, I wrote about how this debate was a make or break moment for Ron DeSantis. The Florida governor has been on a nosedive in the polls and this debate was proving to be the biggest opportunity for him to turn his campaign around under the bright lights. So, did he make the most of the opportunity?
Not exactly. This debate came at a crucial moment for the Florida governor, who mostly spent the debate delivering clearly rehearsed angry lines that the rest of the candidates largely ignored.
DeSantis was very fired up in answers about covid lockdowns and firing Fauci, sending Joe Biden “back to his basement,” ripping “Soros funding radical left-wing district attorneys,” sending troops to the border to leave cartels “stone cold dead,” and so on.
It all just seemed remarkably inauthentic. The canned responses barely matched the actual questions. Even in the moment when asking candidates to raise their hands on supporting Trump if he were convicted, DeSantis scanned the rest of the candidates for hands before raising his own.
Considering DeSantis was at the middle of the stage, the highest polling candidate of anyone at the debate, you’d think other candidates would pay more mind to him. They barely did.
This debate needed to go well for DeSantis to help him turn around his floundering campaign. He may have had a line or two that resonated, but by and large, what he needed to happen simply didn’t happen. The lane remains wide open for a non-Trump candidate to shine in these debates, and no one appears to be taking it.
5. Nikki Haley actually did quite well. But will it matter?
Of the rest of the candidates, Mike Pence did well at presenting his message as an old school religious conservative. The problem for him is that’s just not where the party is right now. I identified Tim Scott as a candidate to watch in my debate preview, and I certainly missed on that one. He was hardly noticeable in the debate. Doug Burgum had moments where he came across as a reasonable adult in the room, but he’s still in the category of also-ran candidates with Christie and Hutchinson.
The one candidate who stood out as taking a different approach, I thought, was Nikki Haley, the former South Carolina governor and U.N. Ambassador. The viral moment for her came with her back-and-forth with Ramaswamy on foreign policy (“You have no foreign policy experience and it shows.”)
But her answer on abortion rights seemed to carve out a potential lane for Republicans to take, after the party has appeared to act like the dog who caught the car on this issue after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade. Here’s what she said (per the Fox News official transcript):
“I am unapologetically pro-life, not because the Republican Party tells me to be, but because my husband was adopted, and I had trouble having both of my children. So I'm surrounded by blessings.
Having said that, we need to stop demonizing this issue. This is talking about the fact that unelected justices didn't need to decide something this personal, because it's personal for every woman and man. Now, it's been put in the hands of the people. That's great.
When it comes to a federal ban, let's be honest with the American people and say it will take 60 Senate votes. It will take a majority of the House. So in order to do that, let's find consensus. Can't we all agree that we should ban late term abortions? Can't we all agree that we should encourage adoptions?
Can't we all agree that doctors and nurses who don't believe in abortion shouldn't have to perform them? Can't we all agree that contraception should be available? And can't we all agree that we are not going to put a woman in jail or give her the death penalty if she gets an abortion?
Let's treat this like the -- like a respectful issue that it is and humanize the situation and stop demonizing the situation.”
While I am certainly not be in agreement with Haley on this issue, as a political realist, I respect the attempt to approach this issue realistically and with an understanding that Republicans need to bring a new framing to their messaging on an issue that they are losing on in election after election since the Dobbs decision. That’s something very few Republicans seem to be doing.
Haley had other answers, too, that were policy-focused and well thought out (even if they occasionally veered into the realm of deeply unlikable Bush-era neoconservatism), and had an aim of building consensus and winning over swing voters.
That consensus-building focus might be the type of message that could work in a general election, but it also might mean she has no chance of winning a Republican primary in the Trump Era.
Stay tuned for more takeaways in Part II…
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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.
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