Milwaukee set to host first RNC presidential debate this week

Debate could see up to 7K visitors inside Fiserv Forum

People enter the Fiserv Forum at night
Basketball fans walk into the Fiserv Forum to watch the Milwaukee Bucks play the Denver Nuggets on Tuesday, March 2, 2021, in Milwaukee, Wis. Abaxent, LLC provided some of the IT work inside the arena that allows people to use cell phones. Angela Major/WPR

As voters tune in to the first Republican presidential primary debate next week, city leaders hope the spotlight will also shine positive light on Milwaukee.

VISIT Milwaukee said around 7,000 people will attend the debate at the Fiserv Forum Wednesday, while millions more are expected to watch from home. It’s the first debate of the election cycle, as Republicans attempt to unseat President Joe Biden.

It is also a test run for the city ahead of the upcoming Republican National Convention next year, an event that could bring 50,000 visitors and $200 million in economic impact to the city. Alison Prange, the chief of staff for the MKE 2024 Host Committee, said she believes many people coming for the debate will be visiting the city for the first time.

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“It’s going to be a great opportunity for the people that are here, but also viewers from around the world and around the country, to get a peek at the great city that Milwaukee is and the Badger state,” Prange said.

Around 24 million viewers watched the first RNC presidential debate in Cleveland in 2015. But it’s unclear if this debate will match those numbers, as former President Donald Trump reportedly plans to skip the event, according to the New York Times. Even so, the debate will put the spotlight on the city and state.

Mayor Cavalier Johnson said he’s excited a national, and even global audience, will get a glimpse of the city.

“Having an opportunity like this presents an opportunity for people across the United States and around the world to lay eyes on Milwaukee, to visit Milwaukee,” Johnson said.

Barry Burden, a professor of political science and director of the Elections Research Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, attended the RNC presidential debate in Milwaukee in 2015. He said prominent conservative leaders, donors and activists as well as local and national Republican officials — including governors and national lawmakers — attend that event. He expects to see the same this time around.

“Tickets are tightly controlled by the party that’s running the debate, and also allotted to the candidates and the campaigns,” Burden said.

The debate will air on Fox News Wednesday night, from 8 p.m. to 10 p.m. Fox News anchors Bret Baier and Martha MacCallum will co-moderate it.

Eight candidates are eligible to attend the event, including Trump, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott, Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum, entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy, Former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley and Former Vice President Mike Pence.

Outside the stadium, Young America’s Foundation, led by former Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, will hold a “block party” before the debate. According to the group’s website, there is a waiting list for free tickets to that event.

Meanwhile, the Coalition to March on the RNC 2024 and the Service Employees International Union of Wisconsin are planning counter-protests outside the Fiserv.

Johnson said he believes the event will be a “test run” for the convention next year, which will be held July 15-18, 2024.

“The Milwaukee Police Department and our partners in law enforcement on the local and national level have been able to utilize this to have sort of a test run for what will come for several days next summer,” Johnson said.

City also hosting RNC summer meeting

The Republican National Committee is also hosting its summer meeting in Milwaukee next week, as planning ramps up for the convention. Prange said the Host Committee will host a vendor fair with several area businesses that plan to do business during the event.

“It really is like a trade show for us to introduce people that will be here next summer — representing state delegations, representing companies — and people that will be doing businesses in the city of Milwaukee,” Prange said.

Claire Koening, the communications director for VISIT Milwaukee, said the summer meeting is an “added benefit” of Milwaukee being the host site for the convention.

“We hope it makes a great impression so that they’re even more excited to come back in July of next year, and maybe they’re even bringing an extra friend, or extra relative and someone else gets to experience Milwaukee,” Koenig said.

‘Swing state’

Burden said the state’s significance to the presidential race will be on full display in the coming weeks and months.

“Both parties will be funneling lots of money and attention into Wisconsin, and picking this as the first debate site is a sign of the importance they’re (Republicans) giving to it,” Burden said.

President Joe Biden visited Milwaukee last week as part of an effort to promote what the White House is calling “Bidenomics” as the presidential race is shaping up to be a replay of the 2020 contest between Biden and Trump. The president wanted to highlight his economic accomplishments as his approval ratings in Wisconsin are stuck at 42 percent. Trump’s favorability ratings in the state are lower still, at 35 percent in the most recent Marquette Law School poll.

Biden flipped Wisconsin blue in 2020 after Trump won the 2016 presidential election. Democrats have historically performed very well in Milwaukee County. In 2020, Biden won nearly 70 percent of the popular vote in the county. But Republicans have been increasingly dominant in smaller and more rural communities across the state.