MADISON, Wis. — When Republican candidates for president gather for their first debate Wednesday in Milwaukee, the spotlight will not only be on them but also on Wisconsin’s role as one of a shrinking handful of genuine battleground states.
Republicans chose Milwaukee for the first debate and for the national convention in just 11 months largely because of Wisconsin’s well-earned status as a swing state. Four of the past six presidential elections have been decided by less than a percentage point here, with Donald Trump winning narrowly in 2016 before losing by a similar margin in 2020.
“Everybody needs to be prepared for all-out war as usual,” said longtime Republican strategist Stephan Thompson.
To participate in Wednesday’s debate, the Republican National Committee required candidates to meet donor and polling thresholds and sign a pledge to support the GOP candidate in the general election. Trump, the frontrunner who faces criminal charges in four separate cases, says he will not attend.
Those expected to be on the stage include Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina, former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy, former Vice President Mike Pence, ex-Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey, and North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum. Former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, Miami Mayor Francis Suarez and Michigan businessman Perry Johnson also say they have met the requirements to make the stage. The official lineup is still coming together because candidates have until Monday evening to provide evidence to the RNC that they have qualified.
The first GOP primary voters will weigh in on the nomination in less than five months, when Iowa holds its Jan. 15 caucus, followed by other early states in February. The eventual nominee is expected to face President Joe Biden in November.
Wisconsin will be one of the biggest toss-ups in the general election. It’s a distinction held by a shrinking but often-shifting number of places, as former swing states like Ohio and Florida become more reliably Republican and Virginia and Colorado more Democratic. That leaves Wisconsin along with Georgia, Arizona, Pennsylvania, and Nevada as among the most competitive states that could decide the presidency.
In a sign of Wisconsin’s importance, Biden traveled to Milwaukee last week to talk up his work to create manufacturing jobs. On Sunday, his campaign announced it is spending $25 million to run ads in seven states, including Wisconsin, to counter Republicans as they debate. The ad buy includes the campaign’s first investments in Hispanic and Black media, the campaign said.
Wisconsin’s status as a top electoral target dates back more than 20 years.
In 2000, Democrat Al Gore carried Wisconsin by a scant 5,700 votes, or just .22% of the total votes cast. That makes Biden’s win in 2020 by nearly 21,000 votes, or a .56% margin, look like a blow out. Two other races — John Kerry’s .38% margin of victory in 2004 and Trump’s .77% win in 2016 — were also razor close.
And there’s no sign of Wisconsin becoming any less evenly divided.
Democrats have been able to chip into the once-reliably conservative Milwaukee suburbs that saw GOP support drop in the Trump era. Democrats also capitalized on population gains in Dane County, home to the liberal capital city of Madison and the University of Wisconsin.
The Democratic moves have been able to help offset Republican gains made in rural areas during the Trump era.
“Wisconsin has almost the exact mix of urban, suburban and rural populations that are needed to maintain a competitive status,” said Anthony Chergosky, a University of Wisconsin-La Crosse political science professor. “It all adds up to a state that is highly contested politically but a state that does not look like it did 10, 20 or 30 years ago.”
Democratic U.S. Rep. Mark Pocan, whose district includes Madison, noted Republicans chose Wisconsin to be the first state to launch its early voting effort, embracing a tactic long used by Democrats but that Trump and others in the GOP shunned and falsely asserted was rife with fraud. Trump also now is encouraging early voting.
Democrats in Wisconsin are headed into the 2024 presidential season feeling emboldened.
They have won 14 of the past 17 statewide elections, including Biden in 2020, Gov. Tony Evers in 2022 and Janet Protasiewicz in April. Her 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.
Republicans have had wins, including reelecting U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson last year, picking up a congressional seat and increasing majorities in the state Senate and Assembly. But those gains were overshadowed by the losses in the presidential, governor and Supreme Court races, Thompson said.
In addition to the presidential race, Democratic U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin is up for reelection to a third term next year. And both sides are preparing for the possibility that the new liberal-controlled Wisconsin Supreme Court orders new legislative maps and forces every current lawmaker to stand for election.
On the presidential race, DeSantis was showing strength this summer while he struggled nationally.
Trump was favored by 31% of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents surveyed, while DeSantis was at 30% in a Marquette University Law School poll released June 29. But in a head-to-head matchup, DeSantis was favored by 57% and Trump by 41%.
Since that poll was done, Trump was indicted for a third and fourth time and DeSantis shook up his campaign as he struggles to chip into Trump’s support nationally.
Wisconsin Republicans are more divided on Trump than the past two times he ran. Trump’s refusal to accept defeat in 2020, and his repeated lies about the outcome in Wisconsin and calls to decertify the results, alienated him from many top Republicans.
“He’s kind of like a warm beer,” the Democrat Pocan said of Trump. “He’s not exactly what we strive for here in the state. I just don’t think there’s a lot of growth potential for him should he be the Republican nominee.”
DeSantis, during a July fundraising swing to Wisconsin, attracted more than a dozen Republican state lawmakers to an event, including former Gov. Tommy Thompson, former Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch and Tim Michels, the 2022 Republican candidate for governor. The hosts included Republican mega-donors Dick and Liz Uihlein, who donated to efforts to get Trump elected in 2016 and 2020.
“Wisconsin Republicans are going to think about one, is this somebody who can beat Trump in a primary and two, can they beat Biden?” Thompson said. “At the end of the day, people here just want to win. Plain and simple.”