What to expect from the first Republican presidential debate – and why Will Hurd won’t be there

Eight GOP candidates will take the stage in Milwaukee in front of a live audience, but Hurd, a former U.S. representative from Texas, isn’t one of them.

By Rhonda FanningAugust 23, 2023 12:00 pm,

Eight candidates for the GOP presidential primaries take the stage in Milwaukee on Wednesday night, and most notably absent among them is former President Donald Trump, the leading Republican in the race. But many Texans might notice another missing voice: that of former U.S. Rep. Will Hurd.

San Antonio native Karen Tumulty, a national political columnist for the Washington Post, joined the Standard with details on why Hurd failed to make the cut and what to expect from the Trump-free debate.

This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity:

Texas Standard: You arrived in Milwaukee yesterday. What’s the scene like? 

Karen Tumulty: Well, I tell you, Donald Trump is not going to be on the stage physically, but his presence, even now, you feel it everywhere. His supporters are on the street. He has sent the top echelon of his campaign here to already be doing some pre-spin. And I also think there’s a very good possibility tonight that Fox will be using video of Trump and having the other candidates react to it, which is probably the closest thing to actually having him on stage.

Another thing – and I am not a fan of live audiences at debates; I think that they are a great distraction. But this debate is going to have a pretty big one. And there are going to be a lot of Trump supporters in that audience. So I think that if any of these candidates takes a shot at him, you’re likely to hear booing or some kind of reaction like that – I mean, sort of reminiscent of what we saw in the now-infamous CNN town hall.

Donald Trump appears to be trying to counterprogram this debate by appearing with former Fox host Tucker Carlson in a one-on-one online at the same time as the debate. What are you hearing about that?

The guidance that I have gotten from the Trump people is that it is going to – I think they are expecting the edited version of this interview, which is prerecorded, to last for about an hour. And so it presumably will be in competition with the first hour of the debate – which of course, is when news usually happens.

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So what do you expect to come out of this debate as a matter of substance – or is this a lot of political theater, given where the Republican Party is right now and who’s polling where?

You know, there could be somebody who has kind of a breakout. I mean, most of the attention right now is Ron DeSantis, who is running a distant No. 2 to Trump, and Vivek Ramaswamy, the kind of outsider candidate. But I am going to be watching to see if somebody like a Nikki Haley or a Tim Scott has an opportunity to kind of present themselves to the voting public.

And, you know, another big audience of this debate is going to be Republican donors. A number of them had put their money behind Ron DeSantis. He’s really not performing up to expectations. They may be looking for another horse.

I think a lot of Texans are asking, well, what about former U.S. Congressman Will Hurd? He’s not going to be on the stage tonight. And I know there was a list of requirements that the RNC had put out there – 40,000 unique donors was one of those qualifications; he met that, as I understand it. So what’s the issue here? 

The main one, I think, is that he has made it very clear he is not going to take this pledge to support whoever the nominee is, especially given the fact that right now the odds-on favorite is Donald Trump. But as Chris Christie keeps pointing out, there’s no penalty for breaking it down the road.

So, you know, Hurd is making a stand on principle here. He is running against a couple of things. I mean, he is running against Donald Trump and the force of his campaign. But another issue for him is that the RNC is doing its very best to kind of winnow out this field and make it as small as possible. And Hurd has also said that, you know, that is a difficult thing for him. He has said, you know, we should be the party of diverse ideas. And that is certainly not the RNC view.

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