Hmmm: Trump to do townhall in Green Bay with … Chris Matthews?

posted at 2:31 pm on March 26, 2016 by Ed Morrissey

The next big event in the GOP primaries comes on April 5th in Wisconsin —  the focus of one of the chapters in my upcoming book Going Red. The book focuses on Brown County as a key target for the GOP in the general election, and a bellwether for the critical northeastern quadrant of the state. Green Bay anchors Brown County, and it will take significant attention in this area to run up a big enough lead to take the state. Presidential candidates will need to spend some time in Brown, especially the Republican nominee.

Donald Trump will get a head start on that effort, doing a town hall on Wednesday from Green Bay. But he’ll do the event live on MSNBC, with Chris Matthews as moderator:

Donald Trump may have declared debate season to be over, but he has agreed to another town hall, this one hosted by Chris Matthews on MSNBC at 8 PM Wednesday, March 30. Matthews will put questions to the GOP front-runner, as will voters in Green Bay, WI, where the town hall will be set. …

“I think we’ve had enough debates,” Trump said at a news conference about a week before that debate was scheduled. “I mean, how many times do you have to give the same answer to the same question?” Trump said at that news conference, announcing he’d snagged Ben Carson’s endorsement. Trump’s chief rival, Ted Cruz has suggested Trump’s afraid to debate him again and challenged Fox News Channel’s Bill O’Reilly to convince his pal Trump to another debate, which O’Reilly would moderate.

That choice may seem a bit strange. Would it be easier to deal with Ted Cruz or Chris Matthews? The former has a motive to make Trump look bad, but Matthews isn’t exactly a neutral arbiter when it comes to Republicans, either.

However, the choice may be brilliant, assuming Matthews doesn’t end up humiliating Trump. Brown County has become a bitter battleground in Wisconsin politics, but voters there want a candidate who breaks out past old partisan divisions and creates pragmatic results. Trump has at least an opportunity to make the argument that he can deliver on that promise, but he’ll have to transcend the potential for MSNBC to handicap him.

Also, Trump’s main issue — immigration — might play a little differently than it does elsewhere, as I write in Going Red:

Graul believes immigration will be a “messy” issue in 2016, but that it might not break the way conservatives expect. This is due in part to the needs of the Green Bay industrial core, but it also the dairy farms in the rural parts of Brown County. “You’ve got a dairy industry that would cease to exist without immigrants working on these dairy farms,” he says. “You’ve got food processing industry, particularly the meat packing industry, that would have to shutter its doors without immigrant labor.”

In Brown, the Republicans on the farms and the Democrats in the city may actually swap the traditional positions on immigration. The family farm has changed, and it takes outside labor to make it work. “You can’t make it work anymore on thirty cows,” Graul explains. “So farms are getting bigger to survive, and they’re getting bigger and bigger. And they need workers on those farms, and they’re not going to find that from white kids coming out of Bay Port High School. They’re finding it in immigrant labor.”

That’s not to say there isn’t support for Trump’s general approach on immigration in Brown County, either; there certainly is. But to succeed in Brown in the general election, the nominee will have to craft a very careful path in laying out a conservative approach to the problem. Can Trump thread that needle and prove he understands the way that issue works in northeastern Wisconsin? We’ll see after Wednesday’s townhall. That will be a big test of whether Trump has the skills, or even the intent, of running the kind of campaign that can compete on the local level by making the message relevant to each community — a test that Republicans failed in both 2008 and 2012.

A good performance might also convince prominent Wisconsin Republicans to come to to his side. So far, most of them are sitting out the primary fight:

Donald Trump is heading to Wisconsin next week with virtually no political support from GOP politicians in the state, remarkable for a party front-runner at this late stage of the nominating fight. …

Many officeholders have endorsed no Republican in the race. The two candidates who had the most “establishment” backing in the state — first Gov. Scott Walker, then Florida Sen. Marco Rubio — both dropped out.

Of Trump’s remaining rivals, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz has gotten more endorsements than Ohio Gov. John Kasich, and is making a concerted push here to consolidate Trump’s opponents in the party. That effort is showing some signs of success on the eve of the April 5 primary.

The Wednesday townhall will be Trump’s best chance to woo at least some of them to his side. And agreeing to go on MSNBC at this stage certainly appears to be a way for Trump to focus his attention more on the general election and make a wider ask for support.

For the past few years, Pittsburgh Tribune-Review reporter and columnist Salena Zito has been a frequent guest on my TEMS live-stream and podcasts. Yesterday Salena got a chance to ask the questions on the Tribune-Review’s Off-Road Politics podcast, discussing the 2016 general election and my upcoming book Going Red. Salena does a significant amount of reporting in critical swing states, including some included in the book, and we discuss the risks and opportunities for Republicans after the nominations are settled:

Adapted from GOING RED: THE TWO MILLION VOTERS WHO WILL ELECT THE NEXT PRESIDENT—AND HOW CONSERVATIVES CAN WIN THEM Copyright © 2016 by Ed Morrissey. To be published by Crown Forum, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC, on April 12. Available for pre-order in hardcover, e-book, and audio.

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