There is a possibility maverick GOP presidential candidate Donald Trump could clash with Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker.
Or former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton could trade barbs with Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders in La Crosse this winter.
Each major political party has scheduled a presidential candidate debate in Wisconsin, with the GOP hopefuls visiting the Badger State this fall and the Democratic candidates in February or March. Locations haven’t been set, but President Barack Obama’s recent visit has political observers, including Viterbo University history professor Keith Knutson, excited.
“I would love to see one of the two debates come to town,” he said. “As a hometown guy, I am pulling for us.”
Joe Heim, a political science professor emeritus at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, said hosting a debate in the city could be a long shot, but the region has some things going for it. The natural choice might be a bigger media market, such as Madison or Milwaukee. But those areas aren’t really in play when it comes time to vote.
Western Wisconsin is more of a toss up.
La Crosse has a history of visits by presidents and presidential candidates, which Heim said is a plus in picking a venue for a debate. President Bill Clinton visited the city once in 1998, and President George W. Bush visited La Crosse twice during his first term.
Obama visited La Crosse as a candidate in 2008 and last month as president, which Heim said makes the job of planning security for a debate easier since much of the work has already been done. As a smaller city, La Crosse is also easier to secure than a major city such as Milwaukee.
The city is also located in an area of the Midwest that makes it appealing. Hosting a debate in La Crosse would offer an opportunity for one of the parties to frame the visit as a “view from the Heartland,” Knutson said. The visit would also have a spillover effect into Minnesota and Iowa, with Iowa’s Feb. 1 caucuses an important litmus test for the crowded Republican field.
Regardless of where the debates are held, both Knutson and Heim said, Wisconsin is getting more of the spotlight in the 2016 presidential race due its rising status with the GOP. Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus is from Wisconsin, and GOP candidate Mitt Ronmey chose Rep. Paul Ryan of Janesville as his running mate.
While Wisconsin has a two-term Republican governor in Walker, it hasn’t gone to a Republican in a national election since President Ronald Reagan won the state in 1984. Recent presidential elections have been close, making the battleground state’s 10 electoral votes an important prize for the GOP.
While Walker survived a recall attempt and won re-election against Democratic challenger Mary Burke last year, Knutson said Walker remains a controversial politician.
His approval rating has fallen since the November election, and he has some gaffes on his record, Knutson said. They include Walker comparing his fight with Wisconsin’s public sector unions with the fight against ISIS.
“This is the state where Walker’s appeal was built,” Knutson said. “But Walker is not resoundingly popular. He’s been divisive.”