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Takeaways from the Republican Debate in Milwaukee: Part 2
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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.
This is Part 2 of our column of takeaways after covering the Republican Debate in Milwaukee. Read Part 1 here.
Back to the column! We’re still recombobulating.
6. Milwaukee shines in its moment in the spotlight
Milwaukee is always itching to be elevated to a situation where it is, as they say, “on the map.” That moment sure arrived this week with the first Republican presidential primary debate of the 2024 campaign cycle. The spectacle of this week is serving as somewhat of a test run for the city’s even bigger moment next year when it plays host to the Republican National Convention in July.
So how did the city handle its moment in the spotlight?
By all accounts…it seems we did pretty well.
Despite the record-high temperatures and sweltering humidity that enveloped the city the day of the debate, the event went off without a hitch. Fiserv Forum was a great venue, the Deer District welcomed events and media and visitors from all over the world, proving to be a perfect staging ground for such things, and downtown was bustling and busy and buzzing all week long. City boosters backing the event and all its ancillary events have to be pleased with how things went.
The concern for many in advance, as we raised in our debate preview, would be that candidates would use their time on stage to speak negatively about the city, as Republicans in the state so often do. A question on crime when Milwaukee was briefly mentioned had to have some city leaders white knuckling to get through without something negative to reflect on the city. But that negative turn didn’t happen, and the tone of the week from the GOP visitors was more or less exemplified by RNC Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel saying “We love Milwaukee” the day of the debate – perhaps the first time a Republican has uttered those words in some time.
The only related event in Milwaukee that brought significant controversy along with it was one hosted by extreme far-right group Moms for Liberty, which reportedly ended up having to move locations several times, after some local groups like Milwaukee Teachers Education Association voiced concern (and ultimately protested the event that was eventually held).
Protests occurred around the debate, which is to be expected – and included groups from across the political spectrum – but nothing got out of control. Milwaukee Police said the debate “occurred without incident.”
It seems like Milwaukee is ready for this. To be sure, people are not exactly thrilled for these events to be happening in this, a very Democratic city. But people are being respectful, and being gracious hosts. That’s about the best we can hope for, and all in all, it was a great night, a great event, and Milwaukee should be proud of how it conducted itself. We host big events all the time around here and we’ll be ready for the big event next year, even if many will have a difficult time stomaching it.
7. There were some weird moments though, of course
Yes, the city stepped up as great hosts. But it was still weird to have people in Trump hats marching around town, it was weird having people like Donald Trump, Jr. and Marjorie Taylor-Greene in the Deer District, and it was weird to be walking through the Fiserv Forum entrance on 6th Street where I’m used to going to Bucks games to instead be parked in a the arena’s players’ entrance to watch the debate on TV screens when the actual event was happening just a few feet away. And of course, the frontrunner candidate who will never ever concede wasn’t present and the debate was among a bunch of candidates who don’t stand much of a chance to be the nominee. It was all undeniably strange to experience.
But hey, let’s embrace the weird.
The weird like the giant Trump and Fauci puppets or the Trump supporters marching around with patronizing signs ripping Ron DeSantis and holding other Hunter Biden crack pipe cut-outs and so many other expressions of Republican political behavior at a truly strange time for the party. Stuff like this is going to be around 100-fold next July, so we had better get used to it.
ICYMI: Dan Shafer will be joining Steve Scaffidi and Sandy Maxx every Tuesday at 9:30 a.m. on 620 WTMJ to talk news and politics on WTMJ N.O.W.! Be sure to tune in!
8. The DNC was there to present a stark contrast with the Republican field
While there’s still a hint of saltiness in Milwaukee toward the DNC for not bringing their convention back to Milwaukee in 2024 after having to go virtual in 2020, the message presented by the DNC leadership in town this week is one that could indeed resonate with Milwaukee voters.
DNC Chair Jaime Harrison was in town for several events, and Democratic Party of Wisconsin chair Ben Wikler and Madison Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway joined him for a press conference on the top floor of the Hyatt the day of the debate. Part of their message was to express just how extreme not just Trump is, but the entire field is.
“No matter who you pick, this group is as extreme as it gets,” said Harrison.
“The record is crystal clear,” said Wikler,” Wisconsinites do not want to move backward to MAGA extremism.”
Abortion rights, in particular, were singled out by Rhodes-Conway as a top issue, and it’s clear that will be a major one that Democrats will be running on in races up and down the ticket in 2024.
In a post-Spring Election breakdown shared by the Protasiewicz campaign, the phrase “coalition of the sane” made an appearance. I made a mental note of that as to how the Democrats might approach the 2024 race, especially if it ended up being Trump on the ticket. That seems to be where things are headed. Democrats are trying to assemble a “coalition of the sane,” while Republicans flail wildly toward the fringe.
ICYMI: Dan Shafer joined Town Call on Civic Media as he does every Wednesday at 12:30 p.m. Listen to that appearance as a podcast here.
9. The YAF event was sparsely attended
The debate was in part put on by Young America’s Foundation (YAF), which is currently run by Scott Walker. On the day of the debate, they held a “Block Party” in the Deer District with live music and food trucks.
It was not well attended. Granted, it was ridiculously hot out and most people making their way to the debate just went right inside instead of standing out in the heat, but it’s just another example of how poorly Republicans are doing to reach young voters. Even the question on climate change posed by a YAF member during the debate was derailed by DeSantis and devolved into hysterics.
ICYMI: Dan Shafer was on “As Goes Wisconsin” with Kristin Brey on Tuesday at 10:30 a.m., as he is every week. Listen to that show as a podcast here.
10. The unrelenting Doug Burgum
After the debate and a couple hours in the Media Room and backstage, I went over to Martin Luther King Drive a couple blocks away just to see how it was around the bars near the arena post-debate.
There wasn't much going on. It was about like a regular season Bucks game. I talked with a couple people at the Milwaukee Brat House, basically the only bar in the Old World Third Street area that was close to capacity. Some bars were closed entirely. It didn’t seem like a flood of Republicans hitting the town after the debate.
But one candidate rolled up right as I was leaving, around midnight: Well it was Doug Burgum, that’s who.
The guy tore his achilles playing pick-up basketball the day before, putting his debate attendance in question, then made a return, stood on stage for the two hours of the debate, was there forever in the Spin Room, and then made it out to the bars. Respect.
ICYMI: Dan Shafer was on “Driving it Home” with Patti Vasquez on WCPT 820 and Heartland Signal the day after the debate to recombobulate about what happened. Listen to that appearance here, and every Thursday at 5:15 p.m.
11. This is not an impressive field of candidates
Bottom line on the debate from a political standpoint is this: This is not an impressive field of candidates. Hutchinson should drop out immediately, Christie seems to just be angling for a cable news gig, Scott underwhelmed, and Pence’s moment has passed him by. DeSantis needed a much better performance, and the staleness of his rehearsed anger gave way for Ramaswamy’s energetic contentiousness to steal the show from the shallow end. Haley was the one candidate who might have moved the needle in a decidedly positive direction, but it might not matter as the specter of Trump looms large over everything.
It’s his party now and the rest of the field is just trying finding a place in his shadow.
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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