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Lots of debate about Democrats' 2020 debates

  • June 08, 2019


Former VP Joe Biden is leading the pack of 2020 Dems by a wide margin. What does the former VP think of the field of Democrats.?

WASHINGTON – Democrats are ready to debate.

And their first sparring partner: The Democratic National Committee.

With less than a month until the DNC’s first primary debate, tensions between 2020 presidential candidates and their party’s national organization are rising. Candidates are criticizing the debate requirements, especially after a new polling guideline was revealed this week which has the effect of excluding Montana Gov. Steve Bullock. The DNC is also getting some flak for refusing to hold a debate focused only on climate change.

All this a week before the DNC will likely have the official list of candidates who will make the first debate stage.

Only 20 of the 23 presidential candidates vying to be the Democratic nominee will be on the stage later this month in Miami, where the DNC will hold the first debate over two days, June 26 and June 27, with 10 candidates on stage each day.

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Currently, to qualify for the DNC’s summer debates, candidates must draw the support of 1% or more of those surveyed in at least three polls, which could be national or Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, or Nevada polls. Presidential hopefuls also can qualify by receiving donations from at least 65,000 individual donors and a minimum of 200 individual donors per state in at least 20 states. 

But on Thursday, the DNC informed Politico that two specific Washington Post/ABC News polls cannot be used by candidates to meet the polling qualification criterion. One of the polls was being used by Bullock to qualify for the first debate. 

Candidates have until June 12 to meet the polling threshold and their donor data must be turned in by June 13 at 11 a.m., DNC spokeswoman Xichotl Hinojosa told USA TODAY. 

So far, only 13 campaigns have said they meet both the polling and donor qualification criteria for the summer debates.

They are: former Vice President Joe Biden of Delaware, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg, former Rep. Beto O’Rourke, D-Tex., Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., entrepreneur Andrew Yang of New York, Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, D-Hawaii, Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., former HUD Secretary Julian Castro of Texas, Washington State Gov. Jay Inslee and activist Marianne Williamson.

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According to Politico, seven other candidates have met the polling threshold: Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, Former Rep. John Delaney, D-Md., Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., Former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, Rep. Tim Ryan, D-Ohio, and Rep. Eric Swalwell, D-Calif.

Here’s a breakdown of the backlash the DNC is receiving ahead of the first 2020 primary debate:

Bullock camp criticizes ‘arbitrary threshold’

The most vocal opponent of the DNC’s recent announcement about accepted polling for debate qualification is Bullock, the only statewide officeholder in the party’s 2020 field to win in a state won by President Donald Trump.

Bullock, who jumped into the 2020 race in mid-May, is currently the only candidate to be affected by the latest DNC announcement. He polled at 1% in a January Washington Post/ABC News poll, which was open-ended and those surveyed were not read a list of candidates. The poll included Democratic figures, such as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, former first lady Michelle Obama and billionaire media mogul Oprah Winfrey, each of them polled at more than 1%.

Bullock campaign manager Jenn Ridder told USA TODAY that the DNC is “certainly trying to shape the outlook of this campaign” by determining who gets to be in the first primary debate. She criticized the “arbitrary threshold” that wouldn’t allow late candidates to surge later on the campaign.

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“I think that we’re 250 days out from the election, from the first time folks are voting, and they’re already deciding who’s in and who’s out by determining who is on the stage,” she said.

But Bullock’s late candidacy came after he presided over his state’s Republican-majority legislative session. The governor expanded Medicaid and passed an infrastructure bill in the most recent session. Lawmakers only hold a regular session for 90 days just once every two years.

Ridder said that the campaign feels that Bullock is “being punished for having to do his job.”

Hinojosa, the DNC spokeswoman, said in a statement that the Bullock campaign was notified “several times beginning in March that this poll would not count because it was open-ended and not a traditional horse race question.” In addition, Hinojosa said the Bullock campaign was notified that the new exemption would be made public Thursday when Politico reported it.


Montana Gov. Steve Bullock announced Tuesday that he is seeking the Democratic presidential nomination, distinguishing himself as the field’s only statewide elected official to win a state that President Donald Trump carried in 2016. (May 14)

“Yeah we’ve known about this rule, but how is anyone else to know about it?” Ridder said. “This is a rule that was exclusive to us.”

When asked whether the Bullock campaign feels like the DNC is specifically targeting the Montana governor, Ridder said: “I don’t think there’s a conspiracy.”

“It’s more that this rule that they’ve decided to make public [Thursday] only impacts our campaign,” she continued, adding that reporters repeatedly asked the DNC to clarify its rules but were stonewalled until this week.

Despite the new rule, Ridder said Bullock is “going to hit the ground running.”

“We’re still hopeful that we’ll make it, but we will be active no matter what and make sure to keep talking to voters with or without being on that stage,” Ridder said.

Climate change

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee has centered his presidential campaign around climate change.

And earlier this year, he advocated for a debate centered on that topic after several grassroots organizations, including MoveOn, the Sunrise Movement, Greenpeace, and others, called on the DNC to host a climate debate.

The DNC denied the request.

Hinojosa said in a statement to CNN that the DNC’s goal “is to provide a platform for candidates to have a vigorous discussion on ideas and solutions on the many issues that voters care about, including the economy, climate change, and health care.”

“The grassroots of the Democratic Party have clearly spoken in favor of a climate debate,” Inslee said in a statement Thursday. “I remain deeply disappointed that the DNC has chosen not to listen to these Democrats, and has threatened to punish candidates who would participate in an outside climate debate.”

Inslee said in a statement Wednesday that the DNC told him that “if we participated in anyone else’s climate debate, we will not be invited to future debates.”

“This is deeply disappointing,” the governor said in the statement. “The DNC is silencing the voices of Democratic activists, many of our progressive partner organizations, and nearly half of the Democratic presidential field, who want to debate the existential crisis of our time.”

The DNC said that although climate change is a top issue for many in the party, the committee is not holding entire debates on single issues, “because we want to make sure voters have the ability to hear from candidates on dozens of issues of importance to American voters,” Hinojosa continued in her statement to CNN.

Warren, O’Rourke, Castro, Sanders, Gillibrand, and Bennet have all also endorsed a climate change debate.

Prior DNC backlash

Complaints about the DNC’s standards for the debates began late last month.

The DNC in late May announced new rules for its fall primary debates. Candidates must hit 2% in four qualifying polls and have at least 130,000 individual donors before they can qualify for debates scheduled for September and October.

DNC Chairman Tom Perez in a recent interview said “in the fall we’re going to raise the threshold because that’s what we always do.”

“You have to demonstrate that you’re making progress,” he said during an interview on CNN. “You can’t win the presidency in the modern era if you can’t build relationships with the grassroots.”

Several Democratic candidates have yet to hit 1% in polling, much less reach the 65,000 individual donor threshold for the summer debates. The DNC’s criteria for the fall debates could, therefore, pose a hurdle for some in the 2020 field. Since the new criteria were announced, several candidates criticized the DNC.

Bennet bashed the new rules as “arbitrary” while campaigning in New Hampshire last week. Delaney sent a letter to the DNC questioning how it came up with its criteria.

Democratic debates: DNC Chair defends rules to get on stage, says they ensure a ‘fair shake’

More: It just got harder to make the later 2020 Democratic debates

This election cycle is not the first time Democratic candidates have taken issue with the committee.

Throughout the 2016 primary season, Sanders’ campaign repeatedly accused the DNC of bias in favor of former secretary of state Hillary Clinton. The Vermont senator’s criticisms were basically confirmed after WikiLeaks in July 2016 posted almost 20,000 emails from top DNC officials, some of which criticized Sanders.

One leaked email suggested that Sanders’ campaign was “a mess.” Another email from Rep. Debbie Wasserman-Schultz, who was the chairwoman at the time, swatted down responding to a story in which Sanders said he would oust Wasserman-Schultz as the head of the DNC. She resigned after the emails were released.

“This is a silly story,” Wasserman-Schultz wrote in an email. “He isn’t going to be president.”

Contributing: Ledyard King, Aamer Madhani

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  • (FILES) In this file photo taken on May 12, 2019 ,New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio speaks inside Trump Tower about the Green New Deal, serving notice to US President Donald Trump demanding more energy-efficient buildings, including Trump Tower, in New York. - New York Mayor Bill de Blasio said on May 16, 2019, he will seek the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination, despite a panning by US media and polls which suggest he faces a tough fight. De Blasio becomes the 23rd prospective Democratic challenger to President Donald Trump.Donald Trump must be stopped. I am Bill de Blasio and I am running for president because it's time we put the working people first, he said in a video announcing his candidacy. (Photo by Don Emmert / AFP)DON EMMERT/AFP/Getty Images ORG XMIT: New York ORIG FILE ID: AFP_1GF9WC1 of 25
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