In its bid to woo the 2020 Democratic National Convention, Milwaukee this week offered up a state-of-the-art arena, robust donor commitments and demonstrated the wherewithal to handle transportation, hotel and entertainment demands.
Then city officials got to the real argument: Donald Trump.
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Milwaukee’s pitch to host the party’s convention in 2020 is predicated on laying out the political benefits of holding the event in Wisconsin, the state that slipped through the Democrats’ fingers in 2016 and unexpectedly voted for Trump.
The case for why Milwaukee is the perfect place to launch the effort to defeat the president goes like this: Hillary Clinton skipped Wisconsin in the general election campaign, leading it to go red for the first time since 1984. A Midwestern convention presence — especially in Wisconsin’s largest and most Democratic city — would send a message that party officials aren’t just coastal elites uninterested in connecting with heartland voters. And it would show a commitment to restoring the party’s relationship with a part of the country that pivoted from Barack Obama to Trump.
Topping it off, Milwaukee is the home of Harley-Davidson, a prized piece of Americana that’s emblematic of the impact of Trump’s messy trade war and his penchant for picking fights over Twitter. The famed motorcycle brand itself is important to the Democratic National Committee, which has already used it in anti-Trump messaging.
“The compelling argument is the election results of 2016,” Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett told POLITICO. “How incredibly important the Midwest is going to be to anybody who wants to win the presidential election.”
No state better embodies the party’s devastating presidential loss than Wisconsin, which Hillary Clinton felt confident enough to bypass only to see it to fall to Trump by less than 25,000 votes. Trump went on to romp through the Midwest before capturing the White House.
“The symbolism is powerful,” Barrett said of Democrats choosing Milwaukee as a host city. “But I think it’s literally connecting with the people who live in the Midwest. The Democrats need to connect with the people who live in the Midwest and this is a prime opportunity to do so. This is an opportunity that they should not miss.”
Still, it’s unclear how much — if any — political impact national conventions, largely designed for a national TV audience, have on the states that hold them. And while the convention is centered on the Democratic Party, several Democrats involved in the process note that key Republican donors and leaders — including GOP Gov. Scott Walker — have backed Milwaukee’s bid, recognizing the economic import of bringing such a major event to Wisconsin.
The DNC selection committee has said it wouldn’t make a decision until after the midterm elections. It has already toured Houston and has plans to tour the third finalist, Miami, in upcoming weeks.
“Choosing the site for our convention is a highly competitive process, and all three cities are in the running,” Jess O’Connell, who is heading the convention site selection, said in a statement. “It is the DNC’s top priority to ensure it is as fair and transparent a process as possible. The three finalists are all incredibly impressive cities and it is our role over these next few months to listen and learn, in order to pick the best city to host the Democratic National Convention in 2020.”
A Wisconsin Democrat close to those who handled the DNC site visit this week said the Milwaukee bid is in part fueled by a behind-the-scenes push from donors trying to steer the convention its way. It’s estimated that a future host site would have to raise $60 million to 70 million to put on the convention.
“There are major political donors on the coasts and in Chicago that have said: ‘We want Milwaukee,’” the Democrat said. The broad-based financial commitment was part of the pitch to DNC site committee members.
A source close to the bid process who was not authorized to speak on the record said steering the local financing effort are three major investors in the Milwaukee Bucks — billionaire hedge fund manager Marc Lasry, Wes Edens and Jamie Dinan. The Bucks organization just poured some $250 million into building the Fiserv Forum, the arena that would house the convention if Milwaukee is chosen.
“Marc, Wes and Jamie, along with some of their friends, have sat down with the DNC,” the source told POLITICO. “There was some offer of assurance that raising the necessary funds wouldn’t be a problem.”
Milwaukee itself also serves as an anti-Trump symbol because of the president’s clashes with Harley-Davidson. After Trump earlier this year imposed tariffs on steel and aluminum, the EU retaliated with a 25 percent tariff on American-made motorcycles. In response, Harley-Davidson announced it would move some of its production overseas. Trump then responded with a tweet encouraging a Harley-Davidson boycott.
“Many @harleydavidson owners plan to boycott the company if manufacturing moves overseas. Great! Most other companies are coming in our direction, including Harley competitors. A really bad move! U.S. will soon have a level playing field, or better.”
Hammering home Harley-Davidson’s presence in Milwaukee — and the city’s ability to accommodate large-scale events — is a 115th anniversary event where more than 100,000 bikers are expected to descend on the city.
A Democratic strategist who attended meetings with Democratic National Committee members in Milwaukee this week said the political reasoning behind a Midwest site gives it an edge in the selection. The only potential drawback is the city’s size and whether it offered enough of the high-end hotels and amenities that big-name donors are accustomed to.
“I think they’re balancing everything, those are the strengths Milwaukee would bring,” the Democrat said. “I think there’s an idea that their donors would like a bigger city with more to do. But I also think they’ve gotten to the point where they’re comfortable with Milwaukee and they’re at the point when they can rattle off eight to 10 reasons for that.”
Beyond the political impetus, a top selling point is the brand new, 730,000-square-foot Fiserv Forum, an arena that DNC members toured 48 hours after the ribbon was cut. There are also 5½ acres next door that can be developed between now and 2020, in addition to a nearby convention center.
“There’s no secret that Wisconsin is a politically interesting state for Democrats and Republicans. From that point of view, we believe Milwaukee makes sense as a convention city for the Democratic National Convention because this is a politically important state. It’s a true swing state,” said Milwaukee host committee chair Alex Lasry, the son of Marc Lasry who also serves as vice president of strategy and operations with the Milwaukee Bucks organization. “But we also know that the most important thing is the ability to throw and host a convention. We don’t need to show that Milwaukee and Wisconsin is politically important. Everyone already knows that. What we wanted to show is that Milwaukee has the capacity and the ability to host this convention.”
At the moment, Milwaukee’s toughest competition appears to be Houston, one of the three finalists along with Miami Beach. While Houston is proposing an everything-is-bigger-in-Texas style convention, Milwaukee is selling something else.
“Part of our theme here is this is a city that gets things done and this is a city that’s fighting back. You saw it in Chicago: Houston clearly played the glitz card. We are not playing the glitz card,” Barrett said. “We are real. You need to connect with our people. That’s what the Democrats need to do. If this is about glitz, then it’s not us.”