First GOP debate faces threats of boycott as lower-polling candidates try to qualify

Republican presidential candidate and former Governor of Arkansas Asa Hutchinson delivers remarks at the Faith and Freedom Road to Majority conference at the Washington Hilton on June 23, 2023 in Washington, D.C. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

Seven weeks before the premiere debate of the 2024 GOP primary, anxiety is building that the event could prove messy and divisive for the party.

Some candidates, like former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, are struggling to meet fundraising and polling requirements to make it on stage. He and others are pushing back on a loyalty pledge the Republican Party is insisting candidates sign to participate. And the race's frontrunner, former President Donald Trump, is considering boycotting and holding a competing event instead.

That's turning what is typically the highly anticipated opener of the election season into a source of uncertainty for the candidates and broader party. The frustration is particularly acute for candidates who hoped to use the forum as a powerful opportunity to confront Trump and try to blunt his momentum.

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"If the outcome of all of these machinations is a very limited field and no Trump in the first debate, it's hard to see how that can be successful," Hutchinson said in an interview. Still, he said he was confident he will make it to the stage, even though he said he has only received contributions from "over" 5,000 donors.

"We're not there yet. We've got a ways to go. And we fully intend to get there," he said.

The Republican National Committee has said that, in order to participate in the Aug. 23 debate in Milwaukee, candidates must have received contributions from at least 40,000 individual donors, with at least 200 unique donors in 20 or more states. They also must earn at least 1% in three high-quality national polls, or a mix of national and early-state polls, between July 1 and August 21.

Candidates will also have to sign a pledge "agreeing to support the eventual party nominee," according to an RNC press release, and one agreeing not to participate in any non-RNC sanctioned debate for the remainder of the election cycle.

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"Our criteria is very clear, we are ensuring quality polls are used to determine which candidates make the debate stage and we are confident that there will be enough polls for our candidates to qualify," said RNC spokeswoman Emma Vaughn.

The candidates who say they have qualified so far include Trump, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott, former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley and entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy. Some lesser-known candidates, such as conservative radio host Larry Elder, North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum and Miami Mayor Francis Suarez, appear unlikely to make the cutoffs.

Former Vice President Mike Pence, who launched his campaign on June 7, has not yet released a tally of donors, but his campaign said it had raised "well into five digits" in the weeks since his announcement.

"Getting in late made it more difficult, but we’re confident we’ll get there," said Pence spokesman Devin O’Malley.

As part of that effort, the campaign focused on direct mail, aided by the list it has rented from Pence’s nonprofit, Advancing American Freedom. That group had well over 40,000 donors, and Pence aides are hopeful those donors will also give to the former vice president’s campaign.

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He's also been holding a series of fundraisers, including one in Boston next week that will be hosted by top Massachusetts Republican donor Bob Reynolds, the CEO of Putnam Investments.

Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who has also expressed confidence he will hit the benchmarks, has pitched himself as the candidate most qualified to directly take on Trump onstage. While Trump's threats to boycott have complicated that argument, Christie's campaign has nonetheless urged donors to give even $1 to help him qualify.

Anthony Scaramucci, the financier who served briefly as Trump's White House communications director and is now supporting Christie, recently encouraged even those who have no intention of voting for the former New Jersey governor to nonetheless chip in.

"Whether you’re a Republican or Democrat, whether you would vote for Chris or wouldn’t vote for Chris, we need someone onstage to tell the truth and put a stop to this nonsense," he said during a recent podcast interview with the candidate.

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ESPN host Stephen A. Smith has urged his followers to do the same. Smith told The Associated Press that he's not endorsing any candidate but feels it is "imperative to have Christie onstage for several reasons."

"Christie’s presence will force both Trump and DeSantis to defend their positions in ways others may be unable to pull off," he said in an email, adding that watching Christie tussle with the likes of Trump and DeSantis would "be must-see TV, in my opinion."

At the same time, Christie has criticized Trump for threatening to boycott.

"He should show up because he owes it to the Republican Party and the voters of the Republican Party to stand up and defend his record," he said on CNN Thursday, urging viewers to visit his website, "donate to me, make sure I’m on that stage, because, if I am, I will raise those issues right to the president’s face."

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Trump, according to campaign officials, has yet to make a final decision on his plans. But he has indicated both publicly and privately that he is not inclined to participate, and aides have been considering options for an alternative event.

DeSantis said Thursday night that he planned to participate in the debate "regardless" of Trump's decision.

"I hope everybody who's eligible comes. I think it's an important part of the process and I look forward to being able to be on the stage," he said in an interview with Fox News.

This wouldn't be the first time Trump has skipped a major GOP debate. During his 2016 campaign, Trump boycotted the final GOP gathering before the Iowa caucuses and instead held his own campaign event, a flashy telethon-style gathering in Iowa that was billed as a fundraiser for veterans. While the event earned him headlines and drew attention away from his rivals, Trump went on to lose the Iowa caucuses to Ted Cruz — a loss some supporters blamed on his debate decision.

In 2020, Trump pulled out of the second general election debate against Joe Biden after the nonpartisan Commission on Presidential Debates sought to make it virtual because of the coronavirus pandemic. Trump had recently tested positive for COVID-19, but said he would only debate onstage.

Lower-polling candidates during the crowded Democratic primary voiced similar frustrations about the debate process in 2019. But this year's GOP drama is unique in part because the party is requiring that candidates promise to support the eventual nominee, which has given pause to Trump's fiercest critics.

The RNC has so far declined to release the actual language of the pledge it intends to make candidates sign. It is expected to be similar to 2016, when candidates had to affirm that, if they did not win the nomination, they would "endorse the 2016 Republican presidential nominee regardless of who it is" and not run as an independent or accept the nomination of any other party.

So far, only former Texas Rep. Will Hurd has said definitely that he will not sign the pledge because he refuses to support Trump if he becomes the eventual nominee.

Hutchinson, who said he wants to wait to see the pledge's exact language, said he believes that everyone running should have the chance to appear.

"The first debate particularly should be an open affair where the candidates should be showcased," he said.

RNC Chair Ronna McDaniel has repeatedly defended the criteria, which came after so many candidates ran in 2016 that debates had to be split in half — with lower-polling candidates participating in an earlier forum.

"Not everybody deserves to be on that debate stage," she said in a recent interview on Newsmax.

Associated Press reporters Michelle L. Price in New York, Sara Burnett in Chicago and Meg Kinnard in Columbia, South Carolina contributed.