It’s Republican Debate Day in America

The Fiserv Forum in preparations for the Republican presidential debate on August 22, 2023, in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

Happy Wednesday! The first Republican presidential debate of the 2024 cycle is tonight in Milwaukee, airing on Fox News and Fox Business at 9 p.m. ET. Semafor’s Dave Weigel asks a good question: What “show of hands” question should the GOP candidates get asked tonight? Sound off in the comments.

Up to Speed

  • Here’s the official lineup for tonight’s debate, from left to right looking at the stage: former Gov. Asa Hutchinson, former Gov. Chris Christie, former Vice President Mike Pence, Gov. Ron DeSantis, biotech entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy, former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, Sen. Tim Scott, and Gov. Doug Burgum.
  • One little hiccup in that lineup: CNN’s Dana Bash reported this morning that Burgum was taken to the emergency room last night after suffering an injury during a pickup basketball game with his staff. It’s unclear as of this writing whether the North Dakota governor will make it to the stage tonight. Drama!
  • Former President Donald Trump, meanwhile, will not be in Milwaukee tonight. Instead, he will appear in a pre-taped interview with Tucker Carlson that will be released on X, the social media site formerly known as Twitter. The Washington Post reports that the interview had been in the works “informally” for two months. “Trump did not officially tell RNC Chair Ronna McDaniel of his decision to not appear onstage until Sunday, even after word of the Carlson interview had become public,” the Post reports.
  • Meanwhile, the pro-Trump super PAC MAGA Inc. is dubbing tonight’s event the “vice presidential debate” and has created a website featuring unflattering information about each of the participants in Milwaukee.
  • Rep. James Comer, the Republican chairman of the House Oversight Committee, has been leading the congressional investigation into Hunter Biden. Now, the Kentucky congressman is pitching small-dollar donors on his investigative work, in particular the committee’s discovery that Joe Biden used a pseudonymous email address during his vice presidency. “The walls are closing in on Joe and I need your support now more than ever,” Comer writes in a recent fundraising email.
  • Republican Sen. Rick Scott of Florida has finally drawn a Democratic challenger in his bid for reelection next year. Former Rep. Debbie Mucarsel-Powell told Politico Tuesday she is running against the well-funded Republican senator, who was first elected in 2018 after serving two terms as Florida’s governor. After narrowly winning her South Florida House district in 2018, Mucarsel-Powell was defeated for reelection in 2020. The Sunshine State has been increasingly hostile to Democratic candidates—in the last decade, just one Democrat has won a statewide election in Florida. “I don’t make any assumptions or underestimate how difficult it is going to be,” Mucarsel-Powell told Politico.

RNC Members Reflect on Trump’s Absence: ‘You Need to Show Up’

MILWAUKEE—With tonight’s first GOP presidential debate fast approaching, Republican National Committee Chair Ronna McDaniel is doing her best to bat away questions about why the frontrunner and former President Donald Trump is MIA. 

But some RNC members who spoke with The Dispatch are being more candid about their frustrations with Trump’s decision to snub one of the most important party-sponsored events of the Republican nominating process.

“Like Ronna, I would prefer that he be here,” says Iowa’s RNC committeeman Steve Scheffler. “I’m not gonna condemn him. But if you want the votes of Iowans, you need to show up.”

But even in Iowa, Republicans’ first-in-the-nation caucus state, Trump leads his closest rival Ron DeSantis by more than 20 points, according to a new NBC News/Des Moines Register/Mediacom poll released this week. Trump’s de facto incumbent status in the polls has convinced the former president and his team that it’s better for him to skip the debate entirely to avoid punching down on a stage with lower-polling rivals.

Trump plans to counterprogram tonight’s debate by dropping a pre-recorded  interview with ex-Fox News host Tucker Carlson at 9 p.m. ET—a move that at least one RNC member views as disqualifying. Virgin Islands Republican Chairman Gordon Ackley floated a rules amendment this week to make RNC-sponsored debate attendance an eligibility requirement for next year’s Republican nominating convention.

Still others remain neutral on Trump’s absence, or even cast blame on the RNC itself for not catering the debate setup to the former president’s personal preferences.

“It’s a huge embarrassment,” says Tyler Bowyer, Arizona’s RNC committeeman who is boycotting today’s debate over the RNC’s decision to co-sponsor the event with Fox News. 

“You should be working with the top-tier candidates that are polling the highest to make sure that they’re good with how the debates are being formed.”

“It’s a huge fail to not have a successful debate,” adds Bowyer, who also serves as chief operating officer for conservative advocacy group Turning Point Action. “It’s one of the few things the RNC has to do.”

“I never want to second guess Donald Trump. I’ll tell you that right now,” says Ed Broyhill, an RNC committeeman from North Carolina.

With Trump’s absence looming large in Milwaukee, the eight candidates who plan to take the stage tonight will have their first opportunity to peel off support from the frontrunner ahead of the first nominating contest in Iowa on January 15. 

What Will the Candidates Do on Debate Day?

MILWAUKEE—Eight of the nearly dozen Republican presidential candidates will meet here this evening for a crucial televised debate. But what are they going to do all day to pass the time?

For this special, debate day edition of Dispatch Politics, The Dispatch reached out to six of the most viable contenders to find out. We didn’t ask about debate prep, or political strategy—or anything, really, about their campaigns. We wanted to know about any rituals or regimens they might employ to distract themselves, steel their nerves, and otherwise prepare mentally for a prime-time, Fox News event that does not kick off until 8 p.m. local time. Here’s what some of them told us.

  • Chris Christie, the former New Jersey governor, plans to have lunch with his family.
  • Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis is in Milwaukee with his wife and frequent campaign partner, Casey DeSantis, and his three young children (all under the age of 7). They’ll spend the day hanging out together in what a senior adviser described as relaxing “downtime.” Those comments were made in an interview with conservative streaming network Real America’s Voice and flagged to use by the DeSantis campaign.
  • Nikki Haley, the former South Carolina governor and ex-U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, will listen to music, “lots and lots of music.” Haley is very serious about music, telling The Dispatch back in early July that she personally curates song lists for campaign events and won’t let staff interfere. Her playlist on Wednesday is likely to include Joan Jett, Queen, Def Leppard and the Go-Go’s, to name a few artists she’ll be listening to as she gets ready to debate.
  • Vivek Ramaswamy, the wealthy biotechnology entrepreneur, has planned a game of tennis and playtime with his young children.
  • Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina is hitting the gym for a workout, spending time with his mother and other family members, and “will spend time in prayer,” reading some devotionals and portions of the Book of Proverbs.

DNC Reveals their 2024 Ground Game Plan

MILWAUKEE—The Democratic National Committee is overhauling the party’s nationwide voter turnout operation set to serve as the engine of President Joe Biden’s reelection campaign.

In an interview with The Dispatch, DNC executive director Sam Cornale said the get-out-the-vote infrastructure underpinning Biden’s 2024 bid would revolve around the concept of “distributed organizing.” The strategy, tested in the 2022 midterm elections and then again this year here in Wisconsin for a crucial state supreme court election, harnesses hundreds of thousands of volunteers across the country who contact voters via telephone, text, email, and social media platforms. 

“This is—if and when President Biden and Vice President [Kamala] Harris are reelected—will be the storyline of the cycle, I think, just how we took advantage of this year head start we have,” Cornale said Tuesday on the eve of the first Republican debate in Milwaukee, where he was overseeing Democratic counterprogramming messaging efforts that include mobile and static billboards, paid advertising, and a Wednesday press conference headlined by DNC Chairman Jaime Harrison.

Cornale emphasized the DNC ground game continues to include the sort of robust field program of local organizers, brick-and-mortar headquarters, and doorknockers that party insiders and voters on both sides of the aisle have grown accustomed to in the 21st century. 

But he said the committee was preparing to roll out an updated version of the distributed organizing apparatus that will increase exponentially the number of volunteers and voter contacts the party is capable of making on Biden’s behalf in the battleground states that decide presidential elections. For instance, in the final six days of that April contest that handed control of the Wisconsin Supreme Court to the Democrats, the party made three million voter contacts.

“Put aside the money, put aside what we’ve done in the states, put aside what’s waiting in the states, put aside all the talent and the size of our team, that’s just an additional, little cherry on top that we built, invested in,” Cornale says. “We’re still going to be heavily invested in traditional field, all of the on-the-ground tactics that you’ve come to appreciate that are sort of tried and true.”

Even if current frontrunner Donald Trump is not crowned the Republican nominee next year, party strategists believe the former president has so transformed the GOP that any of his potential heirs can easily be defined as “MAGA extremists” (a take on Trump’s slogan: “Make America Great Again.”) It’s a message that fires up the Democratic base and can divide traditional Republicans from Trump loyalists. 

There is very little concern among Democrats that tarring Trump competitors—or Trump supporters—as MAGA extremists will backfire on Biden. “What you’re going to see [Wednesday] night on stage is that the extreme, MAGA Republicans have taken over the entire Republican Party,” Cornale says. 

“There’s a whole bunch of people who no longer have a home in the Republican Party, who disagree with what Trump has said, with what he’s done, with how he’s done it, and that has only permeated the GOP,” Cornale adds. “What we are saying is: You have a home with us. If you care about democracy, if you care about economic rights—if you care about freedom, whether it’s democratic, economic, personal freedom, global freedom, we’re your home.”

The DNC and the Biden campaign meet every morning and map out “what needs to happen” and decide jointly the most efficient and effective way to execute and finance the agreed upon strategy. 

In other words: Should the campaign cover costs? Should the DNC? Or should it be a joint effort? To increase legal avenues for DNC financing of advertising and other political activity and take the burden off of the Biden campaign, both sides look for any excuse to include Democrats broadly—congressional and other down ticket candidates—in the effort or messaging. As for Biden vulnerabilities like his age and the federal investigation into his son, Hunter Biden, Cornale says he refuses to ride “the pollercoaster.”

Biden’s lead over Trump in the RealClearPolitics average is just 2 percentage points, 45 percent to 43 percent.

“The reality is, we’re just not focused on the polls,” Cornale says. “If you’re focusing on polls, Barack Obama was down four to Mitt Romney in an analogous period and I’d like to introduce you to President Rudy Giuliani and Hillary Clinton, from 2007. So we’re just focused on the work.”

Notable and Quotable

“I don’t think many people woke up today surprised that these four candidates didn’t make the stage … And I hope they do well, but you got to say, ‘Well, maybe I shouldn’t have gotten in as late as I did. Maybe I should have gotten in earlier. I would have had a longer runway to get the polling that I needed.’ I mean, it’s not easy when you have zero name ID to get to 1 percent in three national polls.”

—Ronna McDaniel speaking with Politico about those Republican presidential candidates who didn’t qualify for the first GOP debate, August 22

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