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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 GillibrandABC names new deputy political director, weekend White House correspondent The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Lawmakers face Capitol threat as senators line up votes for relief bill The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Senate Dems face unity test; Tanden nomination falls MORE (D-N.Y.), New York City Mayor Bill de BlasioBill de BlasioNYC authorities shut down illegal party with more than 100 people As Trump steps back in the spotlight, will Cuomo exit stage left? NY lawmakers agree to strip Cuomo of pandemic-related emergency powers MORE, Rep. Tim RyanTimothy (Tim) RyanABC names new deputy political director, weekend White House correspondent Threats to lawmakers up 93.5 percent in last two months Tim Ryan: Prosecutors reviewing video of Capitol tours given by lawmakers before riot MORE (D-Ohio) and former Colorado Gov. John HickenlooperJohn HickenlooperSenate rejects Cruz effort to block stimulus checks for undocumented immigrants The Hill's 12:30 Report - Presented by ExxonMobil - Third approved vaccine distributed to Americans Democrats hesitant to raise taxes amid pandemic 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 DelaneyCoronavirus Report: The Hill's Steve Clemons interviews Rep. Rodney Davis Eurasia Group founder Ian Bremmer says Trump right on China but wrong on WHO; CDC issues new guidance for large gatherings The Hill's Coronavirus Report: Kansas City Mayor Quinton Lucas says country needs to rethink what 'policing' means; US cases surpass 2 million with no end to pandemic in sight MORE sent a letter to DNC Chairman Tom PerezThomas 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 BennetSenators introduce bill creating technology partnerships to compete with China Democrats push Biden to include recurring payments in recovery package Democrats: Minimum wage isn't the only issue facing parliamentarian 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 ButtigiegPete ButtigiegThe Hill's 12:30 Report - Presented by ExxonMobil - Senate begins marathon vote-a-rama before .9T COVID-19 relief passage The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Virus relief bill headed for weekend vote Biden turns focus to next priority with infrastructure talks MORE and Sens. Bernie SandersBernie SandersLawmakers, activists remember civil rights icons to mark 'Bloody Sunday' Progressives' majority delusions politically costly Sinema pushes back on criticism of her vote against minimum wage MORE (I-Vt.), Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenSenate rejects Sanders minimum wage hike Philly city council calls on Biden to 'cancel all student loan debt' in first 100 days Hillicon Valley: High alert as new QAnon date approaches Thursday | Biden signals another reversal from Trump with national security guidance | Parler files a new case MORE (D-Mass.) and Kamala HarrisKamala HarrisWhite House says Biden would prefer to not end filibuster Biden takes victory lap after Senate passes coronavirus relief package It will be Vice (or) President Harris against Gov. DeSantis in 2024 — bet on it 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 TrumpUS, South Korea reach agreement on cost-sharing for troops Graham: Trump can make GOP bigger, stronger, or he 'could destroy it' Biden nominates female generals whose promotions were reportedly delayed under Trump 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.