WASHINGTON — Call it The Great Purge.
Democrats have until Aug. 28 cutoff to qualify for the next presidential debate, and more than half the field is at risk of being left out. That could be fatal for already-wounded campaigns that could be pushed from the campaign altogether if they don’t find the 130,000 donors and four qualifying polls where they’ve hit at least 2% support in early-voting states.
“The debates … they're pretty much the only thing that matters,” said GOP strategist Alex Conant, who was a senior adviser on Sen. Marco Rubio’s (R-Fla.) 2016 campaign.
Conant said any politicians who stick around after failing to qualify for the debates “immediately become zombie candidates. Maybe they stay in the race but they won’t get media coverage, money or have any plausible path to the nomination.”
“It’s pretty clear the field is going to be cut down,” said Democratic strategist Zac Petkanas, who hasn’t endorsed a 2020 candidate. “That’s the purpose of continuing to raise the threshold higher and higher.”
Of the two dozen candidates running for the Democratic nomination, nine have qualified, four are on the bubble, and another dozen or so realistically have no chance at all.
Four on the Bubble
The four on the bubble — Former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro (D), billionaire Tom Steyer, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) and Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii) — are in desperation mode.
Castro looks like he’ll probably make the debates. He has the donors, and needs just one more qualifying poll get in. He tried to get there by generating some media buzz with an ad targeting Trump last week that ran only on Fox News in the TV market where the president is vacationing at his Bedminster, N.J. golf course (Trump didn’t take the bait).
“As we saw in El Paso, Americans were killed because you stoked the fire of racists,” Castro says to Trump in the ad. “Innocent people were shot down because they look different from you. Because they look like me.”
Steyer also looks like he’ll make it. He’s on pace to successfully buy his way onto the debate stage, having found the 130,000 donors he needs by spending almost $2.9 million Facebook ads over the past month. He’s just one poll away from qualifying after spending around $8.5 million on early-state TV ads to raise his name recognition. He’ll be off the trail to serve on jury duty this week — but his ad dollars will keep working.
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand’s (D-N.Y.) campaign is now trying to do the same thing as Steyer’s. She’s using some of the millions she transferred over from her Senate campaign fund to run more than $1 million worth of television ads in Iowa and New Hampshire to try to get herself up to 2% in any upcoming polls of the early-voting states (she has one poll and needs three more).
Her campaign has dropped another $1 million on Facebook ads over the past month to try to reach the donor threshold. Her campaign said in early August that she’s surpassed 100,000 donors and thinks it’ll get to 130,000 by Aug. 28.
Gabbard already has the donors, but she doesn’t have the cash to go on an ad spending spree like Gillibrand or Steyer to raise her poll numbers. She only has one qualifying poll to her name. And she is going to miss some campaign trail time. Gabbard just left for two weeks of active duty in Indonesia with the Hawaii Army National Guard.
“While some people are telling me ‘gosh, this is a terrible time to leave the campaign, can’t you find a way out of it,’ that’s not what this is about,” she told CBS. “I’m looking forward to being able to fulfill my service and my responsibility.”
The DNC’s debate requirements may have a similar artificial winnowing effect as the old Iowa Straw Poll, which once forced Republicans to spend inordinate time and resources to make a show of force in a relatively meaningless contest months before any actual votes would be cast. That has a distorting effect — but also helps clear the field.
“You could buy a victory in the Iowa Straw Poll and you can buy your way onto the debate stage. Neither are the equivalent of winning the nomination,” said Conant, who was on Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s (R) campaign in 2011 when Pawlenty dropped out after the Straw Poll.
“There are these artificial milestones you never really planned for at the outset, but suddenly become your sole focus,” he said. “Back in 2011 we were no longer running for president, we were running for a Straw Poll, and it becomes all-consuming.”
Who’s In — And Who Doesn’t Have A Prayer
Nine candidates have already qualified for the debates, set for Houston on Sept. 12 (and Sept. 13 if more than ten candidates are in and a second debate is needed): Former Vice President Joe Biden, Sens. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg (D), former Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-Texas) and businessman Andrew Yang are all set.
Then there’s the group with little to no chance to make it. Montana Gov. Steve Bullock (D), Washington Gov. Jay Inslee (D), Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.), New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio (D), author Marianne Williamson, Rep. Tim Ryan (D-Ohio), and former Reps. John Delaney and Joe Sestak (D-Pa.) will join Rep. Seth Moulton (D-Mass.) and Miramar, Fla. Mayor Wayne Messam (D) in the ranks of those watching at home (and being forgotten by voters). It’s a matter of time before a number of these candidates drop out.
Former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper (D) would have been on that list. But he gave up the ghost on Thursday, announcing he’d end his momentum-free campaign for president and strongly hinting he’d jump into the crowded Democratic primary to face Sen. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.).
Hickenlooper thanked his staff (the ones who were left, anyways) for doing “great work against long odds” in a videotaped message, while saying he’d give “serious thought” to a Senate race.
Plenty of Democrats have called on O’Rourke and Bullock to follow Hickenlooper’s lead and run for Senate, but both have defiantly rejected that call.
“There are even some who’ve suggested I stay in Texas and run for Senate. But that would not be good enough for this community, that would not be good enough for El Paso,” O’Rourke said in a Thursday speech announcing his return to the campaign trail after a week-plus back at home helping his city recover after the devastating massacre carried out by a white supremacist. He said he would not “in any scenario” run for Senate during a Thursday night MSNBC appearance.
It appears that O’Rourke’s campaign has been revived a little bit by how he handled his hometown’s tragedy — he was back up to 5% and 4% in a pair of national polls released this week after sinking down into the 1%-2% range in recent weeks.
But while plenty of Democrats may wish he was running against Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) instead and he has until the state’s Dec. 9 filing deadline to change his mind, he may have missed his window. National Democrats are rallying around M.J. Hegar, a military veteran who ran a strong campaign for Congress last year, and a number of other candidates have jumped into the race as well.
Bullock may be the most maddening for Democrats — he may be the only candidate who could give Sen. Steve Daines (R-Mont.) a tough challenge. He has until March 9 to change his mind. He has been adamantly disinterested in running for Senate for months, however —“It won’t be me,” he said when asked about the Senate race Sunday night on Fox News. And he’s taken some more liberal positions since he jumped into the presidential field that could make a Senate bid more difficult in the rural red state, particularly on gun control.
But that doesn’t mean he’s feeling cheery about his campaign.
“The DNC donor requirement may have been added with the right intentions, but there’s no doubt that it’s created a situation in which billionaires can buy their way onto the debate stage, and campaigns are forced to spend millions on digital ads chasing one dollar donors — not talking directly to voters.” Bullock said in a statement blasted out by his campaign on Tuesday. “It’s not serving the candidates, and it sure isn’t helping the voters who will actually decide this election.”
Cover: An attendee casts a corn kernel supporting Pete Buttigieg, mayor of South Bend and 2020 presidential candidate, in a straw poll during the Iowa State Fair in Des Moines, Iowa, U.S., on Tuesday, Aug. 13, 2019. (Photo: Al Drago/Bloomberg via Getty Images)