Not long removed from a presidential primary dogged by accusations of favoritism, the Democratic National Committee has seemingly taken pains this year to give any White House wannabe a fair shake.
But with a field of unprecedented size hoping to win the party’s nomination to face Donald Trump, not even squeezing 20 candidates into the first debates will be enough to avoid controversy.
With the two-night, prime-time event in Miami looming at the end of the month, Montana Gov. Steve Bullock ripped the DNC this week for creating qualifying criteria that places him on the outside looking in. His campaign manager accused the organization Thursday of “making arbitrary rules behind closed doors” after the DNC publicly explained that a poll that seemed to propel him into the debates would not be considered.
The development guarantees friction regardless of whether Bullock is in or out by the time the Miami field is announced June 13. A Miami Herald analysis of qualifying criteria shows that had the poll counted, he would have been one of three candidates fighting for the final two spots on stage.
But is a controversy over the 20th candidate really that awful? If anything, it may get more people talking about the lesser-known candidates as they jockey for attention in Miami — whether they make the stage or not.
In it for sure when the Democrats converge on the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts June 26 and 27 are headliners former vice president Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders, the Vermont senator who railed against the DNC after hacked emails showed in 2016 that the organization was less than neutral in his campaign against Hillary Clinton.
A second tier is comprised of U.S. Sens. Kamala Harris, Elizabeth Warren, Cory Booker and Amy Klobuchar, along with South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, former Texas congressman Beto O’Rourke and former HUD Secretary Julián Castro.
The DNC plans to spread this group — polling above 2 percent — randomly over the two nights with the rest of the field.
Hawaii Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard, New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio and entrepreneur Andrew Yang are among those who will fill out the debate stage, along with author Marianne Williamson and Congressmen John Delaney and Tim Ryan, from Massachusetts and Ohio, respectively. Also in the debates: Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet and California Congressman Eric Swalwell.
The candidates all qualified under rules that required them to either raise money from 65,000 different people — with 200 donations coming from at least 20 different states — or hit at least 1 percent support in three national or early primary state polls from any of 18 recognized organizations. The polling criteria, especially, allowed most candidates to make the event, with 20 hitting the mark.
Bullock would have made 21 and triggered a series of tie-breakers had the DNC considered a January poll conducted by ABC News/Washington Post — among the officially considered surveys when the DNC announced its criteria several months ago. But the organization now says it won’t consider them because voters were asked to select their own preferred candidates rather than choose from a list of given names.
“The DNC notified the Bullock campaign several times beginning in March that this poll would not count because it was open-ended and not a traditional horse race question,” DNC spokeswoman Xochitl Hinojosa said in a statement.
It’s unlikely, but still possible that a last-minute poll could alter the lineup, or that any of the candidates clinging to the final spots could change the equation by hitting 65,000 donations. Candidates must turn in their qualifying information on June 12.
The only two “major” candidates almost certainly out of the debate picture at this point are Massachusetts Congressman Seth Moulton and Miramar Mayor Wayne Messam — who appears to have blown a golden opportunity to grace the debate stage in his backyard.
Though Messam was always a long shot to make the debates, he registered in a New Hampshire poll in April with 1 percent support shortly after launching his campaign with an announcement on CNN. But the very next day, the Miami New Times wrote that campaign workers were being stiffed by the South Florida mayor. The campaign has lost multiple consultants.
Messam didn’t respond to questions sent to his campaign about how missing the debate affects his candidacy.
Moulton, who only announced on April 22, hasn’t registered in any of the DNC’s official polls. But the Iraq War veteran says he’s not going anywhere.
“We always knew not making the debates was a risk we took with how late we were getting in,” said Moulton spokesman Matt Corridoni. “The DNC debates will not decide who the Democratic nominee is. We are encouraged by the reception Seth is receiving on the ground, and he’ll continue to engage directly with voters.”
Bullock would be the third man out unless he registers in another poll, but missing the Miami debates likely won’t be fatal to him, either. The Montana governor didn’t announce his candidacy until May 14, saying he wanted to see through an effort to expand Medicaid in his state before launching his campaign. And there will be another chance to make a debate in July under the same criteria before the DNC raises its benchmarks in September.
He’s now using his beef with the DNC over his qualifying poll to raise money and his profile.
“While Governor Bullock was expanding Medicaid to one in ten Montanans despite a nearly 60% Republican legislature, the DNC was making arbitrary rules behind closed doors,” Bullock campaign manager Jenn Ridder wrote Thursday in an open memo. “The DNC’s unmasking of this rule unfairly singles out the only Democratic candidate who won a Trump state — and penalizes him for doing his job.”
This story has been updated to clarify that Seth Moulton announced his candidacy on April 22.