Trump-less debate could hurt GOP primary stragglers the most

Former U.S. President Donald Trump addresses The Faith and Freedom Coalition’s 2023 “Road to Majority” conference in Washington, U.S., June 24, 2023.

Tasos Katopodis | Reuters

Some Republican presidential hopefuls are pushing hard just for the chance to seize the stage in their party’s primary debate next month.

But the impact of the event may be limited if their top rival, former President Donald Trump, is a no-show.

Trump has repeatedly signaled that he might skip the first debate, set for Aug. 23 in Milwaukee, wondering aloud why he would join the fray just to expose himself to a barrage of attacks from his competitors. “When you have a big lead, you don’t do it,” Trump said in a Fox News interview that aired Sunday. He added that he still hasn’t made up his mind.

“I understand a lot of people would like to have him there,” said Saul Anuzis, a Republican strategist and former chair of the Michigan GOP. “If I were a challenging candidate I would definitely want to have him there and have a chance to take some shots at him.”

Trump’s absence would take that chance off the table, and any heat he might take for refusing to confront his rivals isn’t expected to drag down his lead.

The former president’s shrug toward the debate underscores his elevated position in the Republican primary and the impact his absence could have on his competitors — especially those struggling to raise money or gain traction in the polls.

Trump noted that “Ronald Reagan didn’t do it.” Reagan skipped a GOP debate in Iowa in 1980, but caught flak for the decision and participated in a later debate in the cycle. Trump himself skipped a primary debate in 2016, opting instead to hold a campaign event nearby.

“You’re leading people by 50 and 60 points and you say, why would you be doing a debate — it’s actually not fair,” Trump said in Sunday’s interview. “Why would you let somebody that’s at zero, or one or two or three, be popping you with questions?”

It might be a prudent move. National polls of the Republican field consistently show Trump leading his nearest challenger, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, by double-digit margins. Neither Trump’s loss to President Joe Biden in 2020, nor the two criminal indictments he is fighting on the campaign trail, have appeared to shake his status as the de facto leader of the Republican Party.

“The political reality is that as a candidate who’s so far out ahead, it really doesn’t make a whole lot of sense for him to put himself in the firing line,” Anuzis said.

Trump’s absence could also take a toll on DeSantis, who would become the top candidate on the debate stage — and thus the target of the event. Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas experienced something of that kind during the 2016 debate that Trump skipped, according to a post-debate poll of GOP insiders who rated Cruz the loser that night.

Without Trump, who is known for attracting attention and media ratings, it’s likely that a smaller audience will tune in, according to Anuzis. That would be a blow to some candidates who may get few other prime-time opportunities to break out from the pack.

What about fundraising?

Republican presidential candidate Miami Mayor Francis Suarez delivers remarks at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library on June 15, 2023 in Simi Valley, California. 

Mario Tama | Getty Images News | Getty Images

Historically, debates can also present an important fundraising opportunity. Biden’s 2020 campaign, for instance, said it raised nearly $4 million in an hour after a general election debate against Trump.

“A good debate showing always helps from a fundraising perspective,” Anuzis said. “Especially for the challengers who are having a more difficult time raising money.”

Some of them are still pushing to land a spot on the debate stage. The Republican National Committee has required that candidates must have at least 40,000 unique donors and receive at least 1% support in certain national polls to qualify.

Former Vice President Mike Pence suggested in a tweet last week that his campaign had yet to reach that donor threshold. And former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson told the Associated Press earlier this month that over 5,000 donors have contributed to his campaign.

Other lower-polling candidates have offered perks to boost their donor engagement. North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum, for example, announced he would give $20 gift cards to up to 50,000 people who donated at least $1 to his White House bid. Miami Mayor Francis Suarez’s campaign is raffling off tickets to see soccer legend Lionel Messi’s MLS debut.

Some, though, are merely trying to hype a potential slugfest.

Chris Christie, the former New Jersey governor who has touted his debate skills and vowed to pull no punches on Trump, predicted Sunday that the ex-president’s “ego” would drive him to participate in the debate.

“I think he’d be enormously frustrated sitting back in Bedminster and watching what I’m going to do to him on that stage in absentia,” Christie said on ABC News’ “This Week.”

“Come on, Donald, get on the stage and defend your record,” Christie added.

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