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GOP Debate in Milwaukee Could Signal Wisconsin's Importance in 2016

The national spotlight will shine on Milwaukee this week, as the city hosts the fourth debate among the Republican presidential hopefuls Tuesday night.

The site will be the Milwaukee Theatre downtown. The hosts will be Fox Business and the Wall Street Journal.

While Gov. Walker was testing the waters when the GOP selected Milwaukee, the choice may still indicate that the state could play a pivotal role in the 2016 presidential race.

The Republican National Committee selected the locations for the eleven debates at the beginning of the year. RNC Chairman Reince Priebus wanted to do something different this time, according to spokesman Fred Brown.

“After 2012, Chairman Priebus made it clear that he wanted to see debates outside of just the early four voting states like Iowa, New Hampshire and go into some battleground states that are important in the general election as well, to broaden the party’s message early on,” Brown says.

Brown says the geographical mix of sites the RNC selected also include the battleground states of Ohio and Florida. Pat Garrett of the Republican Party of Wisconsin says the GOP here, is thrilled the state was chosen.

“It’s a great opportunity for Wisconsin to see such an important debate up close. On top of that, it’s going to tie in to how important the state is for the 2016 election cycle,” Garrett says.

One person who thinks Wisconsin could play a key role, at least in the primaries, is Charles Franklin. He directs the Marquette Law School poll. Franklin notes that Wisconsin helped solidify the GOP nomination for Mitt Romney in April of 2012. Romney had been battling fellow candidate Rick Santorum.

“Wisconsin primaries have often come late in the season and therefore not mattered very much. But in 2012, we were pretty much the last building block of Romney’s victory and so we mattered quite a bit to the Romney campaign that year,” Franklin says.

Yet, Christopher Murray thinks the GOP was looking more toward November, when it chose Wisconsin as the site of a debate. Murray is a political scientist at Marquette University’s Les Aspin Institute. While Republicans haven’t won the state since helping elect Ronald Reagan as president, the GOP is always hoping to flip Wisconsin in the general election.

“If you put together a scenario whereby whoever the Republican nominee ultimately is, is able to win the White House, it’s hard to imagine them doing so without winning in Wisconsin. So, if you’re the Republican Party right now, you want to give your candidates enough exposure to Wisconsin voters as you can,” Murray says.

Murray thinks the presidential candidates will make Wisconsin a priority along the campaign trail. In fact, at least two of the hopefuls, Marco Rubio and Jeb Bush, will hold rallies in Waukesha County today, on the eve of the debate in Milwaukee. Gov. Walker will appear with both and plans to attend the debate in Milwaukee, he says, primarily as a host.

Marti was a reporter with WUWM from 1999 to 2021.