R.N.C. Rules for First Debate Pose Challenge for Underfunded Candidates

The Republican National Committee on Friday laid out its criteria for candidates to qualify for the first Republican presidential primary debate, establishing a key fund-raising threshold and requiring candidates to pledge to support the eventual party nominee.

The criteria for the debate, scheduled for Aug. 23 in Milwaukee, come as the Republican presidential primary field grows more crowded, with several contenders expected to join the race in the coming days and weeks. A second debate could be held on Aug. 24 if enough candidates qualify, the R.N.C. said in a statement.

To qualify for the stage, candidates must garner support of at least 1 percent in multiple national polls recognized by the committee, and some polling from the early-voting states will count as well. The candidates must also have a minimum of 40,000 unique donors to their campaign, with at least 200 unique donors per state or territory, in 20 states and territories, according to the committee.

The 40,000-donor debate threshold is likely to prove a consequential and costly barrier to some underfunded candidates. Republican campaigns had already been told informally about the criteria, and some were racing to ensure they had enough donors. Some super PACs are spending money for online ads to drive small donations to the campaigns.

In 2020, even some well-known Democratic candidates struggled to achieve the 65,000-donor threshold that the Democratic Party had set for early debates and diverted money to running ads online to find contributors. The 40,000 minimum could prove a challenge for lesser-known Republicans and those who have yet to begin their campaigns.

Former Gov. Asa Hutchinson of Arkansas, who has struggled to gain traction in the polls, insisted that he intended to make the debate stage in a statement on Friday, even as heexpressed a range of concerns about the criteria.

“The 40,000 donor threshold will keep some candidates from being on the debate stage and benefits candidates who generate online donations through extreme rhetoric and scare tactics,” he said in the statement. “It also deprives the voters in Iowa and other early states of an opportunity to evaluate the entire field of candidates.”

And Larry Elder, a conservative commentator who also faces an uphill battle in the presidential race, said in an interview that while he expected to meet the polling threshold, the 40,000-donor rule was “onerous.”

“It’s hard to get 40,000 individual donors,” Mr. Elder said, declining to specify how many donors he had so far. “We’re working hard. I’ve got a professional team to do it, but I think it’s hard, and I know that other campaigns have complained about it as well.”

Still, some campaigns — and would-be campaigns — were quick to sound notes of confidence on Friday afternoon.

“Looking forward to being there!” said Nachama Soloveichik, a spokeswoman for Nikki Haley, the former United Nations ambassador and former governor of South Carolina.

Former Vice President Mike Pence is expected to soon jump into the race as well, and his team hit a similar theme.

“There isn’t a better communicator in the Republican Party than Mike Pence, so we are looking forward to being on stage,” said Devin O’Malley, an adviser to Mr. Pence.

And Tricia McLaughlin, a senior adviser to Vivek Ramaswamy, the entrepreneur, author and “anti-woke” activist, said the campaign already had “north of 43,000” individual donors. The next campaign finance filing deadline is later this summer.

This is not the first time there have been efforts to cull the Republican debate stage participants. In 2016, lower-polling candidates were relegated to undercard debates.

The criteria for the additional Republican debates for this campaign cycle have not been announced. One person briefed on the discussions said there could be an escalation of the donor threshold for later debates, or for the polling averages required.

Two Republicans familiar with the discussions said Gov. Ron DeSantis’s team had wanted a higher threshold than 1 percent, which would have been likely to thin out the stage, giving him a more direct interaction with former President Donald J. Trump, the current Republican front-runner.

Mr. Trump, for his part, has already suggested that he may skip primary debates, claiming that it was not worth his time to debate his rivals because of his polling advantage.

Candidates hoping to debate in the August matchup are also expected to promise not to participate in any debate not approved by the party committee for the rest of the election cycle, and to pledge to support the eventual Republican nominee.

“I have always supported the party nominee, but I have never supported a party loyalty oath,” said Mr. Hutchinson, who has been critical of Mr. Trump. “The pledge should simply be that you will not run as a third party candidate.”

Those who make it onstage will be grouped according to polling, with the highest-polling candidate in the center, the committee said.

Fox News is slated to host the first debate in Milwaukee.

Shane Goldmacher, Maggie Haberman and Reid J. Epstein contributed reporting.

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