DNC faces new debate minefield

The Democratic National Committee (DNC) is in a tough spot with just 50 days to go before the first presidential primary debate.

Democrats interviewed by The Hill say the DNC has been as transparent and inclusive as possible in putting together the first round of debates — a far cry from 2016, when the national party was accused of limiting and burying the forums in an effort to pave the way for former Secretary of State Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonHillary Clinton slams Trump for spreading 'sexist trash' about Pelosi Gillibrand seizes on abortion debate to jump-start campaign DNC boss says candidates to be involved in debate lottery MORE’s nomination.

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But the massive field of contenders vying for the 20 spots on stage next month in Miami has placed the spotlight back on the DNC as it seeks to accommodate the largest and most diverse field of primary contenders in history.

Most of the 22 candidates running for the Democratic nomination appear to have reached the polling or fundraising thresholds to qualify for the first debate, increasing the likelihood the DNC will have to turn to tiebreakers to determine the top 20.

The DNC will announce the official lineup two weeks before the debates, which will be broken into two rounds of up to 10 candidates each on June 26 and 27.

Rather than having an undercard debate of low-polling candidates, like the Republicans had during the 2016 campaign, the DNC will randomly draw to determine which night the candidates appear on stage, injecting uncertainty into a process that will be closely scrutinized by the campaigns.

There are bound to be complaints.

Some Democrats are wondering how a top contender such as Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersGillibrand seizes on abortion debate to jump-start campaign DNC boss says candidates to be involved in debate lottery CEO pay rising twice as fast as worker pay: AP MORE (I-Vt.) will react if he winds up surrounded by a group of bottom-tier candidates, rather than getting a shot at front-runner former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenGiuliani meets with former Ukrainian diplomat to get info on Dems Gillibrand seizes on abortion debate to jump-start campaign DNC boss says candidates to be involved in debate lottery MORE.

In an ironic twist, the changes the DNC made after Sanders complained about the limited 2016 debate schedule might end up hurting him now that he’s near the top of the polls. 

Sanders and other top contenders face the possibility of getting crowded out by the lower-tier candidates, who make up more than half the field.

“It was smart to add the grass-roots fundraising component, but when you throw in the 1 percent polling requirement, now all these random people get a spot on the stage,” said one former DNC official.

“I’m all for inclusion and competitive primaries, but no one can tell me it’s actually good for us to have this many candidates on stage. It wasn’t good for Republicans and they at least had an undercard debate. My fear is the bullshit candidates will take away from our legitimate ones. We saw how that worked for Republicans. They nominated Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpA better VA, with mental health services, is essential for America's veterans Pelosi, Nadler tangle on impeachment, contempt vote Trump arrives in Japan to kick off 4-day state visit MORE.”

But Democrats are defending party officials for how they’ve handled the process.

DNC Chairman Tom PerezThomas Edward PerezClinton’s top five vice presidential picks Government social programs: Triumph of hope over evidence Labor’s 'wasteful spending and mismanagement” at Workers’ Comp MORE announced the qualification criteria for the first two debates in February — before most of the candidates had entered the race — in an effort to avoid the appearance that the rules were meant to boost of damage any particular candidate.

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Candidates must receive donations from 65,000 unique donors in at least 20 states or reach 1 percent support in three sanctioned polls to qualify.  If more than 20 qualify, the final field will be determined first by those who meet both the polling and fundraising thresholds, then by who has the highest polling average, and finally by who has the most unique donors.

The DNC is relying on ActBlue, the Democratic clearinghouse the candidates use for donations, for data in determining whether the candidates reached the fundraising threshold.

And the DNC has gone public with the polls it will use to determine eligibility.

Perez and his team decided against having an “undercard” debate, believing it could harm some candidates if the party sanctioned tiers based on unreliable early surveys that are often driven by name identification.

“There are folks who are still unhappy, there are folks who will never be happy,” said Ray McKinnon, a DNC member from North Carolina and delegate for Sanders in 2016. “But I believe this iteration of the DNC has done everything, not perfectly, but has been intentional about not putting a finger on the scale.”

A New York Times analysis last week found that 17 candidates have already qualified for the first debate, including several lesser-known names, such as former Rep. John DelaneyJohn Kevin DelaneyOvernight Energy: Democrats ask if EPA chief misled on vehicle emissions | Dem senators want NBC debate focused on climate change | 2020 hopeful John Delaney unveils T climate plan 2020 hopeful John Delaney unveils T climate plan CNN's O'Rourke town hall finishes behind Fox News, MSNBC MORE (D-Md.) and tech entrepreneur Andrew YangAndrew YangDNC boss says candidates to be involved in debate lottery Hillicon Valley: Assange hit with 17 more charges | Facebook removes record 2.2B fake profiles | Senate passes anti-robocall bill | Senators offer bill to help companies remove Huawei equipment Swalwell becomes second 2020 candidate to accept cryptocurrency donations MORE.

The remaining contenders are getting creative as they plead for small-dollar donations or try to reach 1 percent in the polls. A couple of potential candidates, New York City Mayor Bill de BlasioBill de BlasioDNC boss says candidates to be involved in debate lottery Nadler 'OK' after appearing to nearly pass out during press conference 2020 Democrats join striking McDonald's workers MORE and Montana Gov. Steve Bullock, could still join the race in the coming weeks.

Some Democrats are worried that the massive stage of contenders splitting time will amplify the candidates’ worst instincts as they try to stand out from the pack at their first big moment in front of a national audience.

“The whole thing is ludicrous, and no one should be referring to these as debates,” said Jonathan Tasini, a liberal strategist. “It will be a series of soundbites and desperate attempts by candidates to stand out or avoid some major gaffe.”

But Andru Volinsky, a member of the New Hampshire Executive Council and a 2016 Sanders delegate, said the DNC has expertly handled the process after being dealt a tough hand.

“I appreciate the fact that if you meet reasonable requirements that you’re in the debate,” said Volinsky. “That’s not the DNC’s fault, it’s just the difficulty of dealing with a large number.”

And not everyone is worried that the big field of candidates vying for attention will drag down the top contenders. Bob Mulholland, a DNC member from California who is backing Sen. Kamala HarrisKamala Devi HarrisSan Francisco police chief apologizes for raid on journalist's home Gillibrand seizes on abortion debate to jump-start campaign Senate Democrats to House: Tamp down the impeachment talk MORE (D-Calif.), said the full stage would benefit the upper crust by making it difficult for the bottom tier to stand out.

“Having an elevator full of candidates will actually help the front-runners because voters can’t keep track of who said what,” said Mulholland.

The criteria released by the DNC only applies to debates in June and July, so party officials will face another round of tough decisions after the second debate. Democrats plan to stage a dozen primary debates in total.

Some candidates, such as Sen. Cory BookerCory Anthony BookerGillibrand seizes on abortion debate to jump-start campaign 2020 hopeful John Delaney unveils T climate plan Harris readies a Phase 2 as she seeks to rejuvenate campaign MORE (D-N.J.), are already sending out fundraising appeals warning that the thresholds for qualification are likely to increase after the July debate, when the party seeks to spotlight the candidates who have risen to the top.

“At some point, you’re going to have to cull the herd,” said Jon Reinish, a Democratic strategist. “It’s great that we have such a diverse field of qualified candidates, but they’re going to need time over the course of a two-hour debate to explain their positions on health care and taxes and national security. For the sake of the voters and the sake of the candidates, they’re going to have to raise the threshold.”

Max Greenwood and Reid Wilson contributed.