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Monday, September 25, 2023
Hale Republican Debate Watch Party 001

Potential voters sit at the Pfister Hotel bar during a Republican presidential primary debate watch party in Milwaukee, Wis., on August 23, 2023.

Milwaukeeans take in scene of presidential primary debate from local establishments

Wisconsinites debate politics, candidates' personalities as drinks ahead of the first Republican presidential primary debate in Milwaukee

MILWAUKEE — Tickets for the first Republican presidential debate on Wednesday were tightly controlled by the Republican National Committee and Fox News. Those who couldn’t be inside Fiserv Forum tuned in from the next best place: local bars. 

Trenton Czisny, Nathan Harman and Ryan Kush, watching from Uncle Buck’s in Milwaukee’s famous Deer District, disagreed over whether former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley would be a shot of Pink Whitney or Bulleit whiskey. Czisny said former President Donald Trump would be a shot of fireball because “it's low potency but it burns.” 

“Chris Christie would be a sex on the beach,” added Uncle Buck’s bartender Wes Richter.

In Wisconsin, named the “drunkest state” in America by a 2022 survey, bars are a natural spot to tune into the debate. Milwaukee is known as “Brew City” for a reason — the state’s breweries originated in the 1830s as German settlers moved in. Pabst, Miller, Schlitz, Blatz and Gettelman are among the beer manufacturers that originated in the city. 

Uncle Buck’s Manager Christian Roels said most out-of-towners tried a Wisconsin Old Fashioned for their first drink. 

“They usually are confused when we put soda in it and why we have muddled fruit in the bottom of it,” Roels said, adding that Spotted Cow was another popular choice.

Bar owners in the area are used to preparing for sports fans. When the Milwaukee Bucks won an NBA championship two summers ago, 65,000 fans packed into the Deer District. Roels said Wednesday night’s turnout was “pretty timid” in comparison. He anticipated a big showing next year during the Republican National Convention, set for July at Fiserv Forum.

Jake Dehne, who owns Lucky Clover, RWB Milwaukee and State Street Pizza Pub, has worked in the Old World Third Street entertainment district for 20 years. He said there’s “a level of excitement” ahead of the series of political events.

“It's just going to be a ton of eyes on our city. It's going to lead to future business. Milwaukee’s not a Republican city, right, and we have a mayor supporting this, which is huge for business owners,” Dehne said.

Czisny voted for Trump in the 2020 presidential election but said he’s looking to see a new face of the Republican party and likes Haley and Vivek Ramaswamy.

“Christie talked a lot more than I was anticipating and had more decent points than I was anticipating’” Czisny said. “Nikki put on a really good show, especially when she went after Vivek,” he added, referring to when Haley said Ramaswamy has “no foreign policy experience, and it shows” after he said the U.S. should cut down its funding toward Ukraine.

Milwaukee Brat House, the venue that served a brat to former President Barack Obama in 2012, said they weren’t televising the debate. 

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“People have the right to their opinions and the right to freely speak how they feel but I don’t think the bar is the place to do it,” said Nicholas Collage, a bouncer at Brat House. “We all should have the common courtesy to see people for people and not for their political views.”

A couple of blocks southeast, members of Moms for Liberty and Young America's Foundation congregated at the Pfister Hotel’s lobby bar in the afternoon. Maria Mitchell, who described herself as “a young 30-something conservative,” came to “people watch” with a glass of prosecco.

“We've been waiting to host an event of this size. Certainly, this is the test run and then next summer for the convention itself, that will be the real run,” Mitchell said. “It's a seminal moment.” 

Milwaukee was set to host the Democratic National Convention in July of 2020 at Fiserv Forum, but the event was postponed and downsized due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Hotels had set aside roughly 16,000 rooms for the convention. A $20 million renovation that was supposed to happen then at the Pfister hotel will be completed ahead of next year's RNC.

Ellie Stanley, a cocktail server who has worked at the hotel for 43 years, said their rooms were fully booked Wednesday night. Every U.S. President since William McKinley in 1899 has stayed there, and it served as John F. Kennedy’s campaign headquarters in 1960 during the Wisconsin primary race.

Donald Trump Jr. and Kimberly Guilfoyle stopped at the hotel for nearly two hours ahead of the debate. Stanley was ready to serve Trump Jr. a bottle of wine another table bought for him, but she said he declined, opting to stick to water. 

“I halfway served him and he's like, ‘I can't drink it,’” Stanley said. “We've sent it up to his room so he can have it later.”

Trump faced scrutiny for his decision to forgo the debate, instead opting to do a 45-minute pre-recorded interview with former Fox News host Tucker Carlson that was made available five minutes before the debate started. Trump Jr., in attendance on behalf of the Trump team, suggested his dad will also miss the next debate on Sept. 27 in Simi Valley, California.

Mitchell, who voted for Trump in 2020, was excited to meet Trump Jr. but said she wished Trump was at the debate. 

“It's a major middle finger, he and Tucker combined, to Fox News,” Mitchell said.

Staff members across the city reiterated that at the end of the day, as long as people in the bar bought a drink, they didn’t care about a customer's political affiliation. 

“Money's green, right? So it doesn't matter,” Dehne said. “When it comes to business, it's no political stance whatsoever.” 

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