At the Red Mouse Bar and Grill in Cross Plains, about 95 miles from the Fiserv Forum in Milwaukee where eight candidates vying for the Republican presidential nomination took part in the first primary debate, the members of the Dane County Republican Party met to get their first real look at the challengers attempting to unseat former President Donald Trump from the top of the GOP.
Deep blue Dane County went for Gov. Tony Evers in 2022 with more than 78% of the vote and Joe Biden with more than 75% of the vote in 2020, but Republicans here know they don’t need to get to 50 plus one to sway one of Wisconsin’s notoriously close elections, they need to push those numbers up above 30% to take a healthy enough chunk out of the Dane County Democratic advantage to give the more Republican parts of the state a chance to catch up.
These are voters who talk about using their vote strategically, understanding where they fit into the political landscape and have an incentive to find candidates who might be palatable to the convincible Democrats and independents in the county.
Dane County Republican voters might, more than the oft-stereotyped MAGA Republicans of the state’s rural red counties, have been the people former state Sen. Kathy Bernier and former U.S. Rep. Reid Ribble were thinking about in the days before the debate when they said they believe Wisconsin’s electorate is looking to turn a new leaf, to step away from election conspiracism and rancor that led to the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.
“I might be wrong, I’ve been wrong before,” Bernier told the Wisconsin Examiner. “I think most people, a lot of Republican voters, very devoted Republican voters, are kind of sick of it.”
Ribble said he believes if the moderators were going to be successful, they would have to get the candidates focused on questions of policy.
“They can begin to focus Republican primary voters on issues for the first time in eight years really,” Ribble told the Examiner days before the debate. “If they focus on issues, what are we going to do about the national debt, Social Security and Medicare, immigration reform? If they relegate Trump to irrelevance at the debate, I think it can be positive to Republican primary voters.”
Debate watchers leery of personal attacks
About 15 Republicans gathered to watch as patrons on the other half of the building enjoyed a sweltering Wednesday evening with cheap buckets of beer and a few rounds at the video slot machines.
For this crowd, which included voters who refused to give an interview because “business owners get attacked around here” and others who were happy to talk but didn’t want to give their names because they’ve “been attacked before,” nobody on the stage managed to surpass Trump, who was absent from the debate yet enjoys a commanding lead in the early polls.
Larry Pakyz left before the debate even started, but showed up beforehand to hang out with his fellow party members in a shirt depicting an American flag in which the blue field of stars had been replaced with a crucifix. He said Trump was still his first choice, but he thought business owner Vivek Ramaswamy has “some great ideas.” Kevin Schoen, a retired carpenter from Oregon, also said he likes Ramaswamy but that no candidate had yet to surpass the former president.
Ahead of the debate, Ribble said he thought Republican voters were looking for a discussion on policy. Both Pakyz and Schoen said one of the most important issues to them was “Burisma,” the Ukrainian company that Republicans have alleged proves Biden is corrupt.
“The deep state can’t be trusted to govern,” Schoen said.
Among the gathered crowd, there was consensus that two candidates, former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and former Vice President Mike Pence, would never get their vote in a primary.
“Pence is trying to convince everyone he’s holier than them,” Schoen said. “And Christie is the most insincere politician ever.”
As the debate got going, it featured plenty of argumentative back and forth, and the attendees occasionally joined in. When Christie’s attempts to defend his criticism of Trump’s false claims that the 2020 election was stolen were met with boos from the crowd attending the debate in Milwaukee, the crowd in Cross Plains joined them.
When Ramaswamy lobbed sarcastic attacks from his spot near center stage at Pence, Christie and others, much of the crowd laughed alongside him.
Before the debate, Ribble said he thinks voters will respond to someone with a positive message.
“Someone who can see a brighter future, talk more about policy,” he said. “If it’s another populist that’s just decrying the victimhood they love to cry about, chances are they’re not going to be real appealing to independent voters.”
But as the debate wound down, Billie Johnson, former vice chair of the county party, said there were “a couple good singers” but nobody did enough to push themselves close to Trump.
“I have the feeling a lot of people’s minds are made up,” he said.
by Henry Redman, Wisconsin Examiner
August 24, 2023
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