Tougher debate threshold sets off scramble among 2020 Democrats

The Democratic National Committee’s new criteria to qualify for its third presidential primary debate has stirred frustration among some campaigns, setting off a scramble to find ways to navigate the race this fall.

Some campaigns have begun discussing a coordinated push to persuade the DNC to tweak the qualifying requirements for the third debate, according to people familiar with the discussions.

Meanwhile, at least one campaign has started floating the possibility of an unofficial debate for the candidates who do not qualify for the third DNC debate in September — a potentially risky undertaking given that DNC rules prohibit candidates who participate in unsanctioned debates from appearing in official debates.

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The DNC is set to hold its first debate on June 26. To qualify for that debate, candidates need to secure at least 1 percent in three polls from designated outlets or collect contributions from 65,000 unique donors, including at least 200 donors from 20 different states.

The DNC has said that no more than 20 candidates, split between two nights, will be allowed to participate in the first debate. If more than 20 candidates qualify, priority will be given to those who have met both the polling and fundraising thresholds, while the rest of the slots will be determined with a series of tiebreakers.

So far, 20 candidates have qualified for that debate, including 13 who have hit both criteria. Seven others have met only the 1 percent polling requirement, including Sen. Kirsten GillibrandKirsten GillibrandSanders seeks spark from Ocasio-Cortez at Queens rally Overnight Defense — Presented by Boeing — House passes resolution rebuking Trump over Syria | Sparks fly at White House meeting on Syria | Dems say Trump called Pelosi a 'third-rate politician' | Trump, Graham trade jabs Senate confirms Trump's Air Force secretary pick MORE (D-N.Y.), New York City Mayor Bill de BlasioBill de BlasioNew York City lawmakers vote to close Rikers Island jail by 2026 2020 Presidential Candidates Cooperate, or else: New York threatens fines to force people to help block immigration enforcement MORE, Rep. Tim RyanTimothy (Tim) John RyanThe Hill's Campaign Report: Biden camp faces new challenges Third-quarter fundraising sets Sanders, Warren, Buttigieg apart The Hill's 12:30 Report: Hunter Biden speaks out amid Ukraine controversy MORE (D-Ohio) and former Colorado Gov. John HickenlooperJohn HickenlooperThe Hill's 12:30 Report: Trump seeks distance from Syria crisis Gardner dodges questions about Trump's call for Biden probe 2020 Presidential Candidates MORE.

That won’t be enough for candidates hoping to make the debate stage this fall. The DNC announced last week that it would toughen the criteria to get on stage for the third debate in September, requiring that candidates reach at least 2 percent in three polls and round up support from at least 130,000 donors.

The new rules have raised concerns among some of the lesser-known candidates, who have struggled to even meet the criteria to participate in the first debates this summer.

Presidential hopeful John DelaneyJohn Kevin DelaneyWarren, Yang fight over automation divides experts The Hill's Campaign Report: Biden camp faces new challenges Warren's surge brings new scrutiny to signature wealth tax MORE sent a letter to 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 last week asking him to detail the process used to set the updated debate requirements, including who was involved in the decision and whether the party consulted with other presidential candidates as it was formulating the criteria.

He has not yet received a response from Perez, according to Michael Hopkins, a spokesperson for Delaney’s campaign.

“We’re certainly going after that 130,000 donor number, but that’s a tough haul for any candidate,” he said, adding that the new requirements appeared to be “an intentional move by the DNC” to winnow down the primary field.

While Delaney has hit the 1 percent polling threshold to qualify for the first presidential debate later this month, much of his campaign has been self-funded, and he has not yet hit the 65,000-donor mark.

Sen. Michael BennetMichael Farrand BennetBennet: Warren 'not being honest about' her 'Medicare for All' plan Senate Democrats want Warren to talk costs on 'Medicare for All' The Hill's Campaign Report: Biden camp faces new challenges MORE (D-Colo.), another presidential candidate, has also hit only the polling threshold for the first debate. He said last week that the DNC should reassess the criteria for the third debate, suggesting that the party was trying to prune the field of candidates early.

“I hope the DNC will continue to review the decisions that it’s making because I don’t think they should be winnowing the field,” Bennet said. “And I certainly don’t think the DNC should be favoring national fundraising and cable television over the early states like New Hampshire.”

Part of the concern for some campaigns is that the high donor bar will force them to upend their strategies in early primary and caucus states in order to pursue the national television appearances and digital fundraising needed to rally online donors.

Joe Trippi, a veteran adviser to multiple Democratic presidential campaigns, said that while he believes the DNC’s debate criteria are fair, they have the “unintended consequence” of forcing some candidates to choose “between focusing on Iowa or New Hampshire or focusing on making these national requirements.”

But he said it would be a mistake for candidates to pull their focus away from early states in order to meet the debate requirements.

“I’m not sure it makes sense to start trying to take time out of Iowa to go try to be on a bunch of TV networks to get you national numbers up,” Trippi said. “That doesn’t mean not being [in the debates] isn’t going to hurt. But I certainly wouldn’t change my strategy.”

In recent days, there has been discussion among some campaigns of a unified effort to push Perez to soften the rules for the third debate by allowing candidates to qualify through either the 130,000-donor threshold or the polling threshold, rather than having to meet both.

To be sure, the DNC has intimated for months that it would eventually raise the qualifying standards for debates later in the year.

And a number of candidates have already said that they have met both the polling and fundraising criteria for the third debate, including South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete ButtigiegPeter (Pete) Paul ButtigiegSanders: 'Outrageous' to suggest Gabbard 'is a foreign asset' Hillicon Valley: Facebook removes Russian, Iranian accounts trying to interfere in 2020 | Zuckerberg on public relations blitz | Uncertainty over Huawei ban one month out Clinton attacks on Gabbard become flashpoint in presidential race MORE and Sens. Bernie SandersBernie SandersWarren to protest with striking Chicago teachers Sanders: 'Outrageous' to suggest Gabbard 'is a foreign asset' Democratic strategist: Sanders seeking distance from Warren could 'backfire' MORE (I-Vt.), Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth Ann WarrenWarren to protest with striking Chicago teachers Overnight Health Care — Presented by Partnership for America's Health Care Future — Four companies reach 0M settlement in opioid lawsuit | Deal opens door to larger settlements | House panel to consider vaping tax | Drug pricing markup tomorrow On The Money: Trump dismisses 'phony Emoluments Clause' after Doral criticism | Senate Dems signal support for domestic spending package | House panel to consider vaping tax MORE (D-Mass.) and Kamala HarrisKamala Devi HarrisClinton attacks on Gabbard become flashpoint in presidential race Poll: Biden holds 10-point lead nationally over Warren Trump declines to participate in Weather Channel 2020 climate change special MORE (D-Calif.).

But critics of the new criteria, including some party officials, argue that the fact that the requirements were released without consulting candidates or DNC members is indicative of a broader lack of transparency within the committee.

A spokesperson for the DNC did not respond to The Hill’s request for comment.

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Jim Zogby, a longtime DNC member from Washington, D.C., conceded that he most likely would have accepted the new rules had they been reviewed by committee members. But he said that he was frustrated that the decision was made without the input of the party’s rank and file.

“Should you have a limit to the number of candidates who participate at some point? Of course,” Zogby, who supports Sanders in the primary, said. “But if you’re going to be knocking people off willy nilly, you owe them an explanation of how you decided on that criteria.”

Other Democrats, however, have praised the tougher requirements for the later debates, saying that the DNC has a responsibility to gradually raise the stakes for campaigns.

Charles Chamberlain, the chairman of the liberal political action committee Democracy for America, said that the new rules push candidates to build out the kind of grass-roots campaigns that Democrats need to defeat President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump says he doesn't want NYT in the White House Veterans group backs lawsuits to halt Trump's use of military funding for border wall Schiff punches back after GOP censure resolution fails MORE in 2020.

The ones who “haven’t done what they need to do” would inevitably be weeded out of the race, he said.

“To me, it really sounds like complaining because you can’t compete,” Chamberlain said. “The bottom line is for our nominee to win this election, they’re going to need to have a national grass-roots base that is 50 states strong. And they need to be building that starting from day one.”

“I understand that that’s hard, but running for president is hard,” he said.