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Beyond the jabs, Wisconsin voters craved specifics from first GOP primary debate

Potential voters watch the first Republican presidential debate of the 2024 campaign season at The Explorium Brewpub in Milwaukee, Wisconsin on Wednesday.
Maayan Silver
Potential voters watch the first Republican presidential debate of the 2024 campaign season at The Explorium Brewpub in Milwaukee, Wisconsin on Wednesday.

While the first Republican presidential primary debate intrigued Wisconsin voters as it unfolded so close to home, many watching the debate in Milwaukee paid close attention to what wasn't said, expressing a desire to hear more policy details from the candidates on how they would improve the U.S. economy.

Just a mile or so east of the Fiserv Forum, at a small brewpub in Milwaukee's downtown, Americans for Prosperity, a libertarian conservative political advocacy group, organized a watch party. In a spacious, air-conditioned bar, more than 200 attendees munched on meatballs as the heat index outside clocked in at around 105 to 110.

'The economy is number one'

Republican Bernard Hall was one of them. When asked what issue is most important to him, Hall did not hesitate: "the economy is number one."

Hall voted for Donald Trump in the last two presidential elections but said this time around he's looking to see if there's an alternative to the former president who can beat President Joe Biden and unify the country a bit more.

Many other voters at the event, like Hall, watched eight Republican presidential candidates attempt to stand out from the crowd at Fiserv, home to the Milwaukee Bucks, on Wednesday night. North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum, former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, former Vice President Mike Pence, entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy and South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott all fielded questions from Fox News anchors in a state their partysees as critical to its success in 2024. Milwaukee will also host the GOP presidential nominating convention next summer.

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Trump was absent from the debate, choosing to sit for an interview with former Fox News host Tucker Carlson on X, the platform formerly known as Twitter, a day before he surrenderedin Georgia on charges alleging he attempted to overturn the state's 2020 presidential election results. He insists he "did nothing wrong."

With dueling forums and the release of a mugshot of the former president, there was plenty of spectacle to captivate voters this week, but many watching the debate in Milwaukee wanted to focus on substance and issues closer to home, like their pocketbooks.

"I'm almost entirely focused on the economy (and) inflation," says Michael Tautges of Minocqua, a town in northern Wisconsin, which relies heavily on tourism. Tautges, who identifies as an independent voter, says he's noticed a low housing supply in his area, which can make it harder for locals to afford homes. It's a concern that's being felt across the state with a recent report by Forward Analytics, a nonpartisan research group, finding that Wisconsin needs to build at least 140,000 new homes by the end of the decade to keep up with current demand.

"I'd like to hear what [the candidates'] plans are for the future to bring inflation back down, stabilize interest rates," Tautges said.

Nationwide, mortgage rateshave jumped to their highest level in more than two decades, placing increasing financial pressure on would-be home buyers.

Meanwhile, as inflation is easing, it's still high. Consumer prices in July were up 3.2% from a year ago,according to data released earlier this month, driven in part by rising rent, gas and grocery prices. The increase came after the annual inflation rate had fallen steadily for the previous 12 months.

Tautges voted third party in 2020 and says he does not want Trump and Biden as the major party options. "I hope the Republican Party has the mental wherewithal and the fortitude to actually choose a new candidate, a new figure for the party."

Inflation is also the top concern for Reginald Boone of Milwaukee who says he relates to "conservative ideals."

"It's a really big, really big thing going on right now. We need to figure out how to get prices lower on things," he said.

Boone was the most eager to hear from Scott. "He's a Black Republican. He essentially is me. He voices the things that us as Black people we understand as being problematic, especially in the Republican Party. So, I enjoy that a lot about that guy."

Billie Rath of Hortonville, Wisconsin is an independent who hasn't voted in the past two presidential elections. She's curious about what these candidates could do for the middle class. "You know, most of the people that I know, they either don't feel inflation, or it's killing them. So, there's nothing in between."

Searching for solutions

As the debate wore on, these Wisconsin voters didn't seem to get the answers they wanted on the economy. "I think I'd like to hear a little bit more on what is going to be the economic policy in terms of deregulation or regulation," said Hall. "And what [the candidates] are going to do with the bureaucracy in order to free up the economy so that it continues to grow at a faster pace."

Rath liked the debate performance of some of the candidates, like Ramaswamy and DeSantis, but said, "I think that all the rest of the guys, now it's mudslinging. I don't think it's doing them any good."

She thinks the candidates have to focus on the people that don't already like them and have an actual plan. "You're not pleading to the ones that like you. I don't think they for one minute said really what they stood for just, you can't say 'I won't do that. I won't do what that guy did.' Doesn't work like that."

But Tautges believes the lack of specifics is to be expected. "Honestly, a lot of this has been fantastic political theater up to this point," Tautges said. "I feel like they're starting to come around to talking about the issues, but it has a way to go. I think Vivek [Ramaswamy] was right. People got their talking points out of the way, got their jabs in."

Tautges said that since the economy was brought up so early in the debate, it felt like the candidates were still using the opportunity on a national stage to make a splash, not necessarily get into gritty details. "So, I'll be paying close attention to each of their campaigns to see what they actually have to say on the matter."

Yet even with lingering questions about how exactly the candidates would tackle the economy, some candidates made a memorable first impression. Republican Laura Peterson of Jackson, a small town north of Milwaukee, wanted to watch the debate with like-minded people. While Peterson's loyalty is to a second term for Trump, she was excited by Ramaswamy's debate performance "because he's aligned with my values," she explained.

"He seems like a very intellectual and smart individual," Peterson said. "I don't know how he would perform on the world stage [as president]. But I think he would make a great vice president."

Michael Tautges' younger brother Jacob Tautges, 26, lives in Appleton, outside Green Bay. While he traditionally leans Democratic, he says he is now open to Republican candidates and liked what he saw.

"There was some pandering to go around, not unexpected," said the younger Tautges, but added that the North Dakota governor caught his attention. "Mr. Burgum. Fantastic. I wish him the best. If he gives me a horse and a cowboy hat, I will vote for him."

Copyright 2023 WUWM 89.7 FM - Milwaukee's NPR. To see more, visit WUWM 89.7 FM - Milwaukee's NPR.

Maayan Silver is an intern with WUWM's Lake Effect program. She is a practicing criminal defense attorney, NPR listener and student of journalism and radio production.