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The GOP Debate in Milwaukee Approaches
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The GOP Debate in Milwaukee Approaches

Who has qualified, and should Donald Trump participate?

Republican presidential candidates during the Fox Business Republican presidential debate on January 14, 2016 in North Charleston, South Carolina. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

Happy Friday! Especially if your name is Doug. As Politico’s Sam Stein notes, we’re living through “an era of unadulterated political nirvana for the wider political Doug community.” 

Up to Speed

  • Prosecutors in special counsel Jack Smith’s office issued a search warrant to obtain Donald Trump’s social media account on Twitter, now called X, on January 17 amid his investigation into the former president’s efforts to overturn the 2020 presidential election, court records show. A unanimous ruling from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit upheld a lower court’s order that held X in contempt of court and ordered the social media company to pay a $350,000 fine for failing to immediately comply with the court’s three-day deadline to turn over the requested information.
  • An FBI agent shot and killed a man in Utah on Wednesday who threatened to kill Joe Biden ahead of the president’s visit in Salt Lake City this week, court documents show. The fatal shooting took place after the man allegedly brandished his weapon while officials were trying to serve a warrant in connection to his threats.* The incident coincided with a federal investigation involving the 75-year-old man Craig Robertson’s threats to FBI officials and Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg. The FBI is currently investigating the incident.
  • President Biden unveiled a $40 billion supplemental spending package on Thursday that includes $24 billion to bolster U.S. military, economic and humanitarian aid to Ukraine and replenish U.S. weapons already sent to help defend against Russia’s unprovoked invasion, intensifying a government funding fight that’s already meeting pushback from a sizable wing of the House GOP.
  • Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, who is up in 2024 and has not yet declared he will run for reelection, told veteran broadcaster Hoppy Kercheval he is still strongly considering leaving the Democratic Party to become an independent. “I’ve been thinking about that for quite some time,” Manchin said. “The brand has become so bad. The ‘D’ brand and ‘R’ brand. In West Virginia, the ‘D’ brand because it’s nationally bad. It’s not the Democrats in West Virginia. It’s the Democrats in Washington or the Washington policies of the Democrats. You’ve heard me say a million times that I’m not a Washington Democrat.”
  • Retiring GOP Gov. Chris Sununu said Wednesday that if Trump is the nominee, Republicans will lose the governorship in New Hampshire. “We don’t just lose the presidency. We lose everything,” Sununu told a local news outlet. “We lose the Senate, the House, the governorship. Trump costs us on our ballot. He costs us school board seats, for goodness sake. So at least if we’re going to have a candidate who ‘may win-may lose’ in November, let’s at least have someone who can stand on their own and not drag everybody else down with them.”

Will Trump Show Up to the Debate?

With less than 12 days out from the first Republican presidential debate in Milwaukee, no one is sure whether the frontrunner and former president plans to attend. 

What we do know is that as of this morning, Donald Trump does not intend to sign the Republican National Committee’s debate pledge to back the eventual nominee—one of the party’s requirements for getting onstage on August 23. “I wouldn’t sign the pledge,” he told Newsmax on Wednesday. “I can name three or four people that I wouldn’t support for president.”

Meanwhile at least seven other candidates say they’ve met the RNC’s debate criteria—which include getting 40,000 unique donors, hitting 1 percent in three qualifying national polls (or two national and two early state polls), and signing the debate pledge. 

Is this low-polling candidates’ time to shine?

As of this morning, the list of candidates who’ve met the RNC’s polling and donor thresholds include Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, former U.N. Ambassador and South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, former Vice President Mike Pence, South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott, former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, tech entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy, and North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum. 

And looming over every presidential debate coach’s mind is Trump, who told Newsmax Wednesday that he’d “like to do it,” but questioned the upside of participating when candidates who are hardly registering in the polls will ask him “nasty questions.” He has until 48 hours before the debate to qualify by signing the pledge.

Engaging with low-polling rivals onstage would constitute political “malpractice” given Trump’s commanding lead in national and early state polls, GOP strategist Dave Carney tells The Dispatch.

“These guys are going to be swinging for the fences for a knockout blow because they have to show they’re the guy, they’re the one that can take him on,” Carney says of Trump’s rivals. “So I don’t know what he gains from going.”

Terry Sullivan, a Republican consultant who managed Marco Rubio’s 2016 presidential campaign, disagrees. “Trump skips and he loses the debate,” Sullivan told Dispatch Politics last month. “The only significant dip in the polls for him in 2016 was when he skipped a debate.”

Sitting out the first debate of 2024 could bring consequences, especially as candidates mull how to knock Trump onstage for his legal woes, which includes three criminal indictments and counting. “It’s going to drive him crazy if that debate gets a lot of eyeballs and people are up there on the stage—Chris Christie—just kickin’ away at him,” says Iowa-based GOP strategist Dave Kochel. “When you’ve got four or five people on a stage, maybe willing to say, ‘Why isn’t he here? Doesn’t care enough?’ I just think it’s gonna be hard for him not to do it.”

Presidential candidates undergo months of prep that involves mastering killshots, defensive pivots, and the art of not making headlines. And they’re heading into the first debate prepared to knock Trump with the keen understanding that one major gaffe can nuke a campaign.

Recall Rick Perry’s “oops” moment at a Republican presidential debate in 2011, when the former Texas governor and then-presidential candidate couldn’t list the three agencies of government he’d abolish upon winning the White House. And of course there’s Christie’s viral takedown of Florida Sen. Marco Rubio on the 2016 presidential debate stage for regurgitating the same “memorized, 20-second speech” over and over and over again.

As they close in on the debate, a number of candidates continue to quibble with and even publicly ridicule the RNC’s debate requirements. Former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, who has not yet qualified for the debate, has previously criticized the first debate’s 40,000 unique donor threshold and has said he won’t vote for Trump “if he’s a convicted felon.” And last month Christie, who signed the pledge but said he won’t support Trump if he wins the nomination, said in an interview with CNN that he intends to “take the pledge just as seriously as Donald Trump took it in 2016.”

Publicly, RNC Chair Ronna McDaniel has kept her cool despite this constant flow of remonstrations from various candidates about the debate pledge. She insists that the GOP has no plans to change its rules.

Notable and Quotable

“Drinking beer is fine, maybe even good. ‘Americans often judge a candidate by if they’d like to have a beer with them,’ [Iowa-based Republican strategist Jimmy] Centers said. ‘Well, here’s their chance.’ At least one venue offers beers that are actually stored and served below freezing temperatures.”

Also Notable and Quotable

“I am interested and there’s a multitude of folks encouraging me to run.”

—Ex-Trump attorney and convict Michael Cohen speaking with Semafor about a potential Democratic primary bid against Rep. Jerry Nadler, August 10

*Clarification, August 11, 2023: A previous version of this newsletter was unclear about the FBI’s rationale for shooting Craig Robertson. Robertson was shot for allegedly brandishing a weapon toward federal officers, not for threatening President Joe Biden.

David M. Drucker is a senior writer at The Dispatch and is based in Washington, D.C. Prior to joining the company in 2023, he was a senior correspondent for the Washington Examiner. When Drucker is not covering American politics for The Dispatch, he enjoys hanging out with his two boys and listening to his wife's excellent taste in music.

Audrey is a former reporter for The Dispatch.

Michael Warren is a senior editor at The Dispatch and is based in Washington, D.C. Prior to joining the company in 2023, he was an on-air reporter at CNN and a senior writer at the Weekly Standard. When Mike is not reporting, writing, editing, and podcasting, he is probably spending time with his wife and three sons.