Republican debate in Milwaukee will preview party’s struggle to broaden its appeal

The Republican party faces an electability test on Wednesday when candidates including election deniers, climate deniers and anti-abortion extremists take the debate stage in a city that rebukes them and a state they cannot afford to lose.

The first presidential primary debate will be held in Milwaukee, a racially diverse Democratic stronghold in Wisconsin, a battleground that could decide who wins the White House in 2024.

Even without Donald Trump, who is skipping the prime time televised event, the juxtaposition between Republicans who have embraced his far right agenda and their sceptical host city offers a preview of the party’s struggle to broaden its appeal.

“This is a debate of bad ideas,” said Mandela Barnes, born and raised in Milwaukee and a former lieutenant governor of Wisconsin. “It’s going to be a bunch of Maga extremists showing up in this city because Wisconsin is a critical state every election year. But regardless of how they perform, the reality is they are choosing a losing strategy of extremism and showing how out of touch they are with the people of this country and specifically people here in the city of Milwaukee.”

Republicans chose Milwaukee for the first debate and their national convention next year largely because of Wisconsin’s status as a swing state. Four of the past six presidential elections have been decided by less than one percentage point here, with Trump winning narrowly in 2016 before losing by a similar margin in 2020.

In a measure of Wisconsin’s importance, Joe Biden travelled to Milwaukee last week to promote his efforts to create manufacturing jobs. On Sunday his campaign announced it is spending $25m to run ads in seven states, including Wisconsin, to counter Republicans as they debate.

While Republicans have the edge in many rural areas, in Milwaukee, the state’s biggest city, the population of around 600,000 – around 40% African American, 40% white and 20% Latino – is heavily Democratic and has even had three socialist mayors. It was once known as the “machine shop of the world” but, like many cities in the industrial midwest, was hollowed out by factory closures and jobs losses in the 1980s and 1990s and is now embarked on a recovery, at least downtown.

The Milwaukee city skyline on 7 April 2023.

The city remains highly racially segregated and, in predominantly Black neighbourhoods on the north side, there are areas with cracked roads, overgrown grass and a patina of rust. An otherwise handsome row of houses with well kept gardens can be punctuated by a derelict property with boarded up windows.

Angela Lang, founder and executive director of Bloc (Black Leaders Organising for Communities), works from an office within view of two big abandoned buildings in the 53206 zip code, which has the highest incarceration rate of Black men in the country. The organisation started in 2017 and works all year round to turn out voters. “Our team of ambassadors are basically canvassers on steroids,” she said.

Lang said Republicans have a long history of using racist dog whistles about Milwaukee. “We’re the largest economic engine in the state yet we’re not treated that way and most folks’ conclusion is racism is a part of that. It’s jarring to have folks who otherwise insult Milwaukee in so many ways want to descend here. People are reading between the lines that this is going to be a battleground.

“What happens in Milwaukee can determine the rest of the state and ultimately the importance of Wisconsin can influence the rest of the country. So to hear that now they’re showing up, folks see it’s transactional and a little bit disingenuous. I don’t think a lot of folks are welcoming them with open arms given their policies and their comments about Milwaukee.”

Lang worries that next year’s convention could bring full Maga extremism to the city. “If this was like George Bush’s Republican party, I’d feel a little bit safer, but just to know how extreme the party has gotten and they haven’t denounced some of these far right values and ideas and things that people are saying, I’m concerned about the safety of our city next year. I’ve been having some dark conversations and very sobering reality conversations of how to prepare and what that means for our city, especially a party that has embraced far right violence lately.”

In another Black suburb, Greg Lewis sat in the pews of St Gabriel’s Church of God and Christ, where he is assistant pastor. He is also the founder and executive director of Souls to the Polls Wisconsin. Three-quarters of people in the neighbourhood do not care about the debate, he suggested.

“There’s one thing about that Republican party: they’re not afraid to go into enemy territory,” he said. “They have an office right in the middle of the central city right here; it’s on Martin Luther King Drive, as a matter of fact. So it’s not surprising. It’s a bit insulting for some of us because we understand how putrid the politics, how they are so nasty and uncaring, unloving and just irrational.

“It’s an insult but this is an expectation now. I expect for those things to happen and that doesn’t hardly disappoint me any more. What disappoints me is when we don’t stand up against those things.”

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The debate is likely to illustrate how far the Republican party has shifted since falling under Trump’s spell. The eight candidates almost uniformly support his border wall and launching military action against drug cartels in Mexico. All except Chris Christie has vowed to fire FBI director Christopher Wray. Most have leaned into “culture war” issues such as curbing abortion and transgender rights and some have endorsed Trump’s “big lie” that the 2020 election was stolen.

Such positions are wildly out of step with the majority of voters in Milwaukee. Ed Fallone, an associate law professor at Marquette University Law School, who has lived in the city since 1992, said: “Relatively few residents of the city of Milwaukee care about the candidates. Milwaukee is a heavily Democratic city and votes heavily Democratic.

“However, residents are viewing this debate and also the convention as this alien entity that has arrived on our body and we’re concerned to see whether it will have a beneficial effect in generating positive interest in our town among the country, or whether it’ll have a negative effect and whether the Republicans are going to attack their host.”

Milwaukee is emerging from a violent weekend that saw 28 people shot and four killed. Fallone would not be surprised if Republicans try to exploit this for political gain. “The concern I have as a resident is that the Republican candidates will just try to create their theme, whether it’s American carnage or ‘woke’ efforts to defund the police or whatever fear stoking that they’re going to engage in on public safety, they will try to make Milwaukee into a negative example.

“The conservatives in the far suburbs and rural areas of Wisconsin don’t normally attack Milwaukee. They recognise we’re an important economic engine for the state. But I’m worried that conservatives running for president will try to make us exhibit one in the defund the police narrative that they’re trying to sell, which is not fair and not true.”

Wisconsin will be one of the most crucial swing states in the general election. Democrats have been able to chip into the once-reliably conservative Milwaukee suburbs that saw Republican support drop in the Trump era, while Republicans have made gains made in rural areas over the same period.

Democrats enter the next election cycle feeling emboldened. They have won 14 of the past 17 statewide elections, including Biden in 2020 and Tony Evers in 2022. Earlier this year Janet Protasiewicz’s victory in the Wisconsin supreme court race took majority control of the court away from conservatives for the first time in 15 years, with major decisions looming on abortion access, redistricting and voting rules.

Many here say that abortion rights could be decisive in 2024 and Wednesday’s debate will put Republicans’ views on the issue in the spotlight. But Trump, the frontrunner who faces criminal charges in four separate cases, will not attend; he has reportedly pre-recorded an interview with former Fox News host Tucker Carlson to be streamed at the same time. Trump has also said he will surrender to authorities in Georgia on Thursday to face charges in the case accusing him of illegally scheming to overturn his 2020 election loss.

Charlie Sykes, editor at large of the Bulwark website, who lives in Milwaukee, said: “It’s impossible to overstate how surreal this moment is that the former president of the United States will be perp walked for the fourth time, will face a more than a dozen new felony charges, will have his mugshot taken, will be out on bail and yet is by far the leading Republican candidate for president of the United States.

“We have been numbed and battered and bruised for the last eight years but this is an extraordinary moment, the split screen in American politics where you have these Republican candidates running for president over here Donald Trump facing more felonies and Republican voters looking at that and going, yeah, we’re pretty much OK with the guy – orange is the new black.”

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