Republican debate signage ahead of the Republican primary presidential debate hosted by Fox News in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, US, on Tuesday, Aug. 22, 2022.
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Wealthy Republican political donors will receive the VIP treatment at Wednesday night’s GOP presidential primary debate in Milwaukee, according to contributors and organizers who spoke to CNBC ahead of the event.
Many of the party’s top contributors will arrive by private jet, attend private dinners and breakfasts around the city, and get face time with their preferred candidates, these people explained.
The first debate of the 2024 presidential cycle will offer campaigns a crucial opportunity to wine and dine their top donors in person, and to build momentum for the next phase of the race, the critical early primary states.
Andy Sabin, a wealthy New York businessman who backs South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott, told CNBC he plans to arrive in Milwaukee by private jet for the debate. During the debate, Sabin said he will be seated next to Gov. Kristi Noem of South Dakota, seen by many in the party as one of its brightest stars.
“I think it’s a good chance to get a first look at all the candidates,” Sabin said.
Billionaire and veteran venture capitalist Tim Draper will be at the debate to support former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, his preferred candidate. “I don’t think that any other candidate can hold a candle to her,” Draper said in an email to CNBC. Haley is currently tied for fifth in the crowded field.
Scott and Haley will be joined on stage by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and businessman Vivek Ramaswamy.
One candidate will be notably absent: former President Donald Trump, who is far ahead of his rivals in the polls.
Donors can attend the debate at the Milwaukee Fiserv Forum as a guest of his or her preferred candidate, with tickets distributed to the campaign by the Republican National Committee, according to sources familiar with the matter. Those who declined to be named did so in order to speak freely about private matters.
A spokeswoman for the RNC did not return a request for comment on the ticket system.
A person familiar with the planning said each campaign was offered around 50 tickets, and the RNC is responsible for approving the guest list.
Major donors to the RNC will be staying at the city’s most luxurious hotel, the Saint Kate, according to a party fundraising bundler. The hotel is a haven for the arts, featuring gallery exhibits and installations throughout the property, and a live performance every night, according to its website.
Wednesday’s debate is not officially open to the public. Nonetheless, organizers expect between 4,000 to 6,000 attendees, according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Tickets also are being distributed by partner organizations, including online video platform Rumble and the Young America’s Foundation, according to the Journal Sentinel.
Telethon for DeSantis
Several of DeSantis’ top donors will stay at The Westin Milwaukee, according to Hal Lambert, a businessman who has donated $6,600 to the governor’s political operation, according to Federal Election Commission records.
On Thursday morning, some of the top donors will get together for a campaign fundraising telethon at the hotel, Lambert said, in order to make calls to their friends and associates to encourage them to donate to DeSantis.
Other top DeSantis fundraisers heading to the debate include Texas businessman Roy Bailey and New York real estate executive Nick Sinatra, according to people briefed on the matter.
Private dinner for Scott donors
Some of the top donors to Scott will attend a private dinner on Wednesday night at Milwaukee steakhouse The Capital Grille before the debate, according to a campaign bundler who spoke to CNBC.
Part of a restaurant chain whose Washington location is the preferred hangout of lobbyists and lawmakers, the Milwaukee location’s menu features a $65 bone-in ribeye.
Scott’s team will also host a breakfast on Thursday morning for top donors at The Pfister Hotel, a luxurious downtown landmark that first opened in 1893.
Scott is expected to attend the Thursday breakfast but not the Wednesday night dinner, the fundraiser said. A spokesman for the Scott campaign did not respond to a request for comment.
The debate offers candidates the rare chance to confront their rivals face to face, and every campaign hopes to come out of the night with a clip that goes viral online. Fireworks on screen can serve as a powerful tool to help campaigns raise money, and in turn, qualify for future debates.
To qualify for the Milwaukee event, each candidate had to raise money from at least 40,000 individual donors and hit certain polling thresholds, such as at least 1% in three qualifying national polls.