At a Lehigh Valley watch party, Vivek Ramaswamy carries the GOP presidential debate
- The Lehigh Valley branch of Americans For Prosperity hosted a watch party Wednesday for the Republican presidential debate
- In the eyes of attendees, billionaire entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy was the runaway winner of the night
- However, many of those watching said they were still backing former President Donald Trump, who opted to skip the debate
UPPER MACUNGIE TWP., Pa. — Before Wednesday night's Republican presidential debate reached the closing statements, a group of conservative voters watching from the Americans For Prosperity's Lehigh Valley office had seen enough.
They were ready to call it.
The small but lively crowd had soaked in the eight candidates as they tangled on topics such as the economy, Ukraine, crime and abortion. After about 90 minutes, the organizers for the watch party asked the attendees who they thought had won the debate. The final tally counted one vote each for former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley and former Vice President Mike Pence.
The remaining 13 votes went to billionaire Vivek Ramaswamy, who repeatedly clashed with much of the field throughout the night.
"I don't like him, but I like what he has to say," Chadd Horton, a Moore Township resident, conceded.
Horton may have been the most rowdy observer in the crowd. Throughout the broadcast, he shouted fat jokes about Christie, scoffed when Haley blamed both Republicans and Democrats for the deficit and flipped the bird to Pence for what Horton perceived as disloyalty to Trump. But he couldn't help but admire the 38-year-old Ramaswamy, who supported pulling military aid from Ukraine, called climate change a hoax and unabashedly defended Trump.
"Vivek is killing it right now. He is holding them to task for everything they've done," Horton said.
But it remains to be seen if any of the candidates can build on their debate performance when Trump is dominating the Republican field. The political data website FiveThirtyEight.com reported that Trump led national polls of the GOP presidential race Wednesday with more than 52 percentage points. The only other GOP candidate to appear in double digits heading into the debate was DeSantis, with 15.2 percentage points, according to the site.
Trump sat out the debate, instead opting to do a one-on-one interview with former Fox News host Tucker Carlson that aired on X, the social media platform previously known as Twitter. While several people in attendance said his absence gave them a better opportunity to learn about the other candidates, they acknowledged the debate didn't do anything to dislodge Trump's apparent grip on the nomination.
John Spyd, a 56-year-old from Lansford in Carbon County, said Ramaswamy's style and business background reminded him of Trump. But all things considered, he would prefer to stick with the original. Spyd said he spent most of his life supporting Libertarian candidates; Trump is the only Republican to earn his vote for president. Now, he's considering registering with the GOP so he can cast a ballot for the 45th president in the May primary.
"He's not perfect, but I want him to reverse everything [President Joe] Biden has done," Spyd said, saying he disagreed with the incumbent's stance on education, energy, Ukraine and the border.
The reactions may represent a hard reality for the evening's hosts. Americans For Prosperity, the nonprofit group largely funded by conservative billionaire Charles Koch, hasn't endorsed any of the presidential candidates, but it has pushed for the Republican Party to find fresh leadership. Emily Seidel, a senior adviser to the national group, warned in a memo released Tuesday that Trump may lack the necessary support among independents to deny Biden a second term.
"This debate is an opportunity for each candidate to show how they intend to break the downward spiral of our politics and get back to advancing good policy that will improve lives. Republican voters are looking to move on from Donald Trump – they just need to see someone with the vision and conviction to move our country forward and win in 2024," she wrote.
If the most high-profile attendee at Wednesday's watch party had any opinions about the candidates and their performances, he kept them to himself. If things go well for state Rep. Ryan Mackenzie in his bid for the Republican nomination to Pennsylvania's 7th Congressional District, he'll be sharing a ballot with the presidential nominee in 2024.
"As someone running in a crowded field myself, I think a contested primary can only be a good thing," Mackenzie said.