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Why are the Republican candidates meeting in Milwaukee? No, it's not for the beer

The Tower of the City Hall is seen in downtown Milwaukee, Wis., in January 2020.
Eric Baradat
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AFP via Getty Images
The Tower of the City Hall is seen in downtown Milwaukee, Wis., in January 2020.

The Republican National Committee and the Fox News Channel will hold their first official showcase event for Republican candidates in the 2024 presidential cycle on Wednesday in Milwaukee, which is also slated to host the GOP's national nominating convention next July.

Milwaukee has been a debate site for both parties before. The Wisconsin city on the shores of Lake Michigan was among the dozen GOP debate locations the last time Republicans did this, eight years ago.

But picking this city for the GOP's national nominating convention, its premier quadrennial event, raised eyebrows.

Did it make sense to have the party's premier event on such fundamentally Democratic turf? And weren't the Democrats thinking of having their convention there, too?

To take the second question first, the Democrats were planning to have their convention in Milwaukee in 2020. Then COVID happened, making mischief with both parties' convention plans. The Democrats still held some official functions in Milwaukee but staged their media extravaganza on TV and the internet from multiple locations around the country.

Then in August of last year, the RNC announced Milwaukee as the site for the GOP convention in 2024. That was that. They would hold their shindig in Fiserv Forum, where the Milwaukee Bucks play, and hold their first intraparty debate there, too.

That repeated the pattern from the last time the GOP had a contested primary, ahead of the 2016 election. That time, the choice was Cleveland's Quicken Loans Arena (since rechristened the Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse) for both convention and first debate.

The Democrats, for their part, decided to go back to Chicago, which has hosted them 11 times (and Republicans 14) since 1860. It remains the most frequent location for both parties - by far.

Suddenly, everyone wanted Milwaukee

There was real irony in having Milwaukee chosen by each of the parties in the space of just four years, because the city had never hosted either major party's national convention before. Achieving that dream was the Holy Grail for the Greater Milwaukee Visitors and Convention Bureau for generations (including the one in which this reporter covered that entity for The Milwaukee Journal).

The Bureau would pitch both national parties every four years, rarely making the short list. Milwaukee had a hard time attracting the biggest conventions, even in the warm weather months. It did not have the hotel rooms to compete with Chicago (just 90 miles to the south) or with the major metro magnets on either coast — or even with such Great Lakes regional rivals as Cleveland, Detroit and the Twin Cities (each of which has hosted a nominating convention).

Beyond that, the city lacked the legendary nightlife to be found in New York or New Orleans — or even on a par with Houston, San Diego, Tampa or Dallas-Fort Worth (all of which have hosted the GOP over the past 40 years). And that's not even to mention the blandishments of other medium-size cities that have bid for a major party nominating event, such as Nashville and Las Vegas.

But changing times have altered the criteria for a convention location. The party gatherings have moved away from their reputation as wingdings where "political party" had two equally valid meanings.

In one sense, that shift seems oddly counterintuitive. Because conventions no longer do much in the way of real work, they ought to have more time for play. They no longer function as deliberative, confrontational events that actually determine the ticket. That task was ceded to the primaries and caucuses in the 1970s, in both parties — usurping what had been the conventions' central purpose.

Instead, the conventions now exist for messaging and major fundraising on the side. The messaging is geared to TV coverage and, as we saw in 2020, the show can go on from anywhere.

But what about the message sent by choosing such a Democratic venue over friendlier cities in the Sunbelt and elsewhere?

A long tradition on one side of the aisle

Milwaukee, we should note, has not had a Republican mayor since 1908. The last one, Sherburn M. Becker, served for two years. Since then, the city has had three mayors who called themselves Socialists and served a combined total of 38 years. One, Daniel Hoan, won seven mayoral elections and had the longest Socialist administration in U.S. history.

Wisconsin politician Sherburn Merrill Becker pictured in 1918.
/ George Grantham Bain Collection via the Library of Congress
/
George Grantham Bain Collection via the Library of Congress
Wisconsin politician Sherburn Merrill Becker pictured in 1918.

The city also elected the first Socialist ever to take a seat in Congress, Victor L. Berger, in 1910. An Austrian-born newspaper editor, Berger helped organize the national Socialist Party. He lost reelection in 1912, and he won his seat again in 1918, but the U.S. House refused to seat Berger, who opposed World War One, since he was indicted on 26 counts of "disloyal acts" under the Espionage Act.

Milwaukee kept reelecting him anyway. In 1921, the Supreme Court overturned his conviction and restored his right to office. Berger went on to serve three more terms after the ruling.

It should be said that the socialism embraced by Hoan and other Milwaukee mayors was more populist and practical than revolutionary. Devoted as they were to public works projects, they were derided by some in the movement as merely "sewer socialists."

Hoan and others left the Socialist Party and became Democrats. And in the 1950s, a rising Democratic Party also attracted some of the previous admirers of progressive Republican Robert La Follette. That helped Democrats rise in the legislature and elect a Democratic governor and two Democratic senators for the first time. And it happened largely because the state's most populous county - Milwaukee - included so many voters who had benefited from the New Deal and 20th century unionism in the industrial sector.

In recent decades, Milwaukee has had frequent visits from presidents of both parties who find it a convenient venue for outreach to voters proud to be part of either the middle class or the working class. Both Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama carried Wisconsin twice, both times with relative ease.

But today the fault lines of American politics are shifting. The parties are no longer extensions of the industrial power struggle between labor and capital. Education and affluence are no longer reliable predictors of Republican sympathies, and populism is increasingly identified with the right.

So cities such as Milwaukee cannot be predicted in their politics by reference to their past, even a long and consistent past.

And that is another reason for both parties to take a long look at what they can do for such voters. And what they have to offer them.

Host city now likely implies an electoral target

In terms of local office, Democrats still dominate in Milwaukee. Cavalier Johnson became the first African American elected mayor in 2022.

But Wisconsin has become one of the six or seven states most likely to be closely contested in a national election. That has been something of a surprise in itself, as the state had preferred Democrats for president seven times in a row starting in 1988.

Hillary Clinton's 2016 campaign largely took Wisconsin for granted. She did not visit the state after the convention, secure in the unanimity of published polls that all showed her well ahead. Donald Trump had not even won the GOP primary in the state, but a late surge in the fall of 2016 stunned Clinton and the country.

President Biden is welcomed by Milwaukee Mayor Cavalier Johnson (center) and Milwaukee County Executive David Crowley on arrival at Milwaukee International Airport Air National Guard Base in Wisconsin on Tuesday.
Andrew Caballero-Reynolds / AFP via Getty Images
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AFP via Getty Images
President Biden is welcomed by Milwaukee Mayor Cavalier Johnson (center) and Milwaukee County Executive David Crowley on arrival at Milwaukee International Airport Air National Guard Base in Wisconsin on Tuesday.

Four years later, Biden eked out a narrow victory based largely on the strength of the state's second-largest city, Madison, the state capital and home of the flagship campus of the University of Wisconsin System.

But the margin for both Trump's win and his loss was less than 1% of the total vote. The statewide winning margin was also less than 1% in 2004 and 2000, and it is anyone's guess which way the state will go in 2024. But by coming to Milwaukee for 2024, the GOP signals a continuing commitment to compete in the region. It also demonstrates the party's interest in connecting with urban working-class voters, especially those with conservative views on social issues such as abortion and gender identity.

A similar argument influenced the Republicans' choice of Cleveland in Ohio, a state that usually lines up with the national winner. Ohio had done so in 12 consecutive cycles at the time, and sure enough, Trump made it 13 in 2016. (The streak was broken in 2020, when Trump easily won Ohio again but lost the national vote.)

While Wisconsin is not as large a prize as Ohio, Pennsylvania or Michigan, it was a vital part of the "Blue Wall" around the Great Lakes that Obama built in 2008 (when he won all eight states that have shores on the lakes). Biden spoke of restoring this regional bloc in 2020, and he managed to recapture all but Ohio and Indiana.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Ron Elving is Senior Editor and Correspondent on the Washington Desk for NPR News, where he is frequently heard as a news analyst and writes regularly for NPR.org.
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