Covering all the highly anticipated midterm debates in the Midwest: A reporter’s notebook

Paulina Tam is one of seven ABC News campaign reporters embedded in battleground states ahead of the November midterms.

Based in the Midwest, Tam had a busy schedule last week as the election season enters its final stretch a number of expected debates. Below she summarizes her week.

See more of Tam’s work with the Embed team and anchor George Stephanopoulos at Hulu’s “Power Trip.”

Sunday to Monday: “Debate week” starts

As a student, you remember the craziness of finals week. Campaign reporters like me deal with something similar — “debate week.” I cover three states: Michigan, Ohio and Wisconsin. Many of the candidates I follow played it out on stage last weekso a lot of preparation (mostly research, logistics, and refreshing my candidates’ positions on key issues) was necessary to put me in a good position to write and send reporting notes to ABC News’ myriad producers and platforms as quickly as possible.

(Fortunately, I had an easier task last Sunday night: watching a virtual fundraiser hosted by the Wisconsin Democratic Party, which featured the cast of “Veep” and “The West Wing”).

PHOTO: Wisconsin Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Mandela Barnes poses for a photo with Mandi Miller and her 3-week-old daughter Lark during a campaign stop in West Allis, Wis., Oct. 12, 2022.

Wisconsin Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Mandela Barnes poses for a photo with Mandi Miller and her 3-week-old daughter Lark during a campaign stop in West Allis, Wis., Oct. 12, 2022.

Scott Olson/Getty Images

The candidates on my radar last week included Ohio Senate nominee Rep. Tim Ryan and JD Vance, Democrat and Republican; and in Wisconsin, Senate nominee Mandela Barnes and Republican incumbent Ron Johnson and gubernatorial hopeful Democratic incumbent Tony Evers and challenger Tim Michels. I also followed the Michigan race between Governor Gretchen Whitmer and GOP rival Tudor Dixon.

Senate races in particular are high considering the chamber is split 50-50 right now, and each contest has the potential to determine the balance of power in Congress.

I woke up early Monday morning and double checked that I was cleared for the first Senate debate in Cleveland. I also went to fill up my car with gas. I knew my challenge in the coming days would be to stay laser focused, but also to pace myself so I had enough “gas” to get through.

Arriving two hours before the Ohio debate, I had time to decompress a bit in the media room, which was located above the news suite. The shades were drawn to prevent photos and videos from being taken, but curiosity got the best of me. I took a look and saw Rep. Ryan drinks from a glass of water.

Once the debate started, everything else was drowned out. It was just me, the debate program and my transcription units trying to keep up with the many questions and answers from the candidates. I also knew I had to stay nimble, so I used my iPhone to record the two gaggles after the debate ended.

I was in the process of writing my second note to the other ABC News crews when the venue assistants quickly ushered everyone out of the spin room.

I drove back to my hotel to finish sending out my notes. Before I knew it, it was early Tuesday morning.

PHOTO: Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and Republican gubernatorial candidate Tudor Dixon are seen during a Michigan gubernatorial debate in Grand Rapids, Oct. 13, 2022.

Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and Republican gubernatorial candidate Tudor Dixon are seen during a Michigan gubernatorial debate in Grand Rapids, Oct. 13, 2022.

Bryan Esler/AP

Tuesday and Wednesday: On track

The middle of the week was dedicated to following candidates on the go as they made their pitches to voters before and after taking the debate stage. Ryan had two events back-to-back (one in Canton and the other in Akron), so my schedule mimicked his.

Ryan held a meet-and-greet with a few dozen supporters at an outdoor plaza in Canton on Tuesday. They were congratulating the congressman on a “job well done” the night before when Ryan interfered. After speaking with several attendees, I conducted a quick interview with Ryan — what we call a “move aside” — and asked him about several debate points that needed clarification, particularly his comment that President Joe Biden did not would reset. 2024.

When asked if he wanted a member of their party to primary Biden if Biden were to run again, Ryan told me he “didn’t want to get into all that” and that his main goal was to focus on his campaign.

Later on Tuesday, at Ryan’s event in Akron, I met with family members affected by the opioid crisis in the state. He held a roundtable discussion with advocates, many of whom have already known Ryan for some time. Each participant told the congressman stories of losing loved ones and how they want to keep students safe in schools as an influx of so-called “rainbow” fentanyl pills have been seized by authorities in other parts of the country.

Afterwards, I followed Ryan back to his campaign bus, asking him along the way questions about providing additional resources to those recovering from opioid addiction. When Ryan left, I returned to continue my conversations with the family members and asked for more information about the work they are doing to memorialize their loved ones. Several advocates gave me brochures and pictures of those they had lost. I now carry them with me in my gear bag as a reminder of one goal of reporting: to listen to and share people’s stories.

Back in Cleveland for the night, I prepared to do it all over again the next day with Barnes, Wisconsin’s Democratic candidate for Senate.

After sneaking in a few hours of sleep, I woke up at 4:30 a.m. Wednesday to catch an early morning flight to Milwaukee. The weather had taken a turn and the sky was splitting open – pouring rain – with tornado sirens wailing when I arrived at the Barnes event, a stop on his “Ron Against Roe” tour, where he speaks to constituents about Late. Johnson’s opposition to access to abortion.

At the event, at a restaurant in West Allis, I ran into a Wisconsin resident I met earlier at another event in downtown Milwaukee.

When I was introduced to Mandi Miller of Wauwatosa in August, she was pregnant with her second child. When I saw her in the room on Wednesday, Miller had dressed her beautiful new baby in a shirt with the words “Mandela Barnes” on it.

As with Ryan, I asked Barnes questions – but this time in a press group, sharing my time with the other reporters on the scene.

That wasn’t the only thing I had to work on: Correspondent Rachel Scott and the team were doing a package on the state of the race in Ohio, so I helped them gather information and locations for filming. (As an ABC News embed, you service all platforms, so when one — or more — knocks, you answer.)

Neither the Republican Senate nominees in Ohio nor Wisconsin had events on Tuesday and Wednesday. While I hoped to spend more time with them on the trail during the week, I knew with Election Day approaching it was only a matter of time before I caught up with them again.

Thursday and Friday: More face-offs

I was finally in the final stretch of debate week — although there are a few more later this month. (Who counts?)

Thursday was a nested team-up because I had two simultaneous debates to cover, so my colleague Hannah Demissie, who usually covers the South, watched and reported on the Michigan gubernatorial event.

I started my Thursday morning by covering a virtual news conference between Barnes and retired US Army Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, who served in the Trump administration and was a key witness at the former president’s first impeachment trial. Barnes and Vindman pushed back on GOP criticism of Barnes’ statements about police by highlighting Johnson’s ties to Jan. 6, which Barnes emphasized with a new campaign ad that day.

A committee hearing in the House on January 6 earlier this year revealed text messages from January 6 in which Johnson’s chief of state wrote to an aide to then-Vice President Mike Pence that “Johnson needs to turn over … alternate voter lists for MI and WI” to Pence as part of efforts to derail the certification of Joe Biden’s victory over Trump.

Johnson insisted to ABC affiliate WISN in August that the Jan. 6 committee made a “grotesque distortion” and that he had “nothing to do” with the fake voters and “virtually no involvement” in the effort to send anything to Pence. adding that his participation “lasted a few seconds.”

After writing a note about Barnes’ press conference – plus an article for the ABC News website — I continued to prepare for the second and final Senate debate in Milwaukee.

I arrived at the venue nearly two hours before the start of the showdown, expecting Barnes supporters to be outside — and sure enough, like the first Wisconsin Senate debate a week earlier, they were there, waving signs and chanting.

I interviewed a few contestants and it was in the middle of filming that I realized my fingers were going numb. Wisconsin’s fall and winter are no joke! I made a mental note to order some gloves and hand warmers online.

Inside, the hour-long debate got under way and it flew by.

Interestingly, no one from the Barnes campaign came to the spin room, so I asked a member of his team afterwards for their take. They said, “His debating performance speaks for itself!”

I ran (drove) back to my hotel, where I spent the rest of the evening writing notes on the debate and preparing for the Wisconsin gubernatorial debate on Friday.

PHOTO: Democratic Representative Tim Ryan and Republican candidate JD Vance of Ohio are pictured in composite file photos.

Democratic Representative Tim Ryan and Republican candidate JD Vance of Ohio are pictured in composite file photos.

Getty Images, FILE

After a few hours of sleep, I woke up to grab some coffee, put on some “war paint” (aka some makeup) and participate in an Instagram Live with “Nightline” co-anchor Juju Chang to promote this week’s “Power Trip” episode and give viewers a glimpse into my wild week.

It warmed my heart to see Juju again. Did you know she used to be president? She has seriously done it all!

After a quick meeting with my colleagues, I spent the rest of the afternoon preparing for the gubernatorial debate before heading to Madison, where I grabbed some MOS — jargon for “man on the street” interviews — with several supporters of Gov. Evers.

I also saw the chairman of the Wisconsin Democratic Party in the crowd, so I chatted with him about the state of the governor’s race as well as asking questions about whether any big-name surrogates were coming to campaign on behalf of the ticket. The chairman respectfully declined to confirm any names, but said shortly afterward off camera that former President Barack Obama planned to travel to Milwaukee later this month.

I immediately alerted my team to the development, and shortly after sending that email, it was time for a debate. News of Obama’s visit would dominate the spin room later in the evening, with a surrogate for Michels, the Republican gubernatorial candidate, claiming Democrats were “in trouble” because they are “bringing out the big guns.”

When the debate was over, I sent a final note to my colleagues, packed up my gear, and headed back to my home for the night in Milwaukee. There I read up on what happened in the Michigan gubernatorial debate and finished my half-eaten breakfast sandwich – cold but still delicious, especially after a grueling week.

“Power Trip” releases new episodes on Sundays on Hulu.

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