Murphy: DNC still has thumb on presidential primary scales
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Murphy: DNC still has thumb on presidential primary scales

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If Iowa Democrats were concerned the national party has become too heavy-handed in this presidential primary, last week's news did nothing to quell those concerns.

The Democratic National Committee once again raised the threshold for candidates to qualify for the January debate, which will be held at Drake University in Des Moines. The December standards whittled the field of debate-eligible candidates to seven, and January’s could make the debate stage even less crowded.

Just five candidates would be eligible for the Iowa debate: Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Pete Buttigieg, and Amy Klobuchar. Although there is still time for others to qualify, if no more do that would leave 10 candidates off the debate stage.

For months, some Democrats have expressed concern the debate qualifications have replaced Iowa’s primary role in winnowing the field. Their fear is that the debates have displaced Iowans as the primary element vetting this expansive field.

The DNC does not seem to share the concern. Chairman Tom Perez pushed back at the suggestion when he was in Iowa earlier this year for the state party’s annual fall fundraiser. Perez insisted Iowans’ input is still important to the process, and that the national party’s qualification standards are not overly burdensome.

There are roughly 10 candidates and many Iowa Democrats who would disagree.

"The DNC’s job is to help elect Democratic candidates up and down the ballot. It is not to tell voters who those candidates should be," U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colorado, a presidential candidate, said in a statement. Bennet is one of the candidates whose polling numbers are well below the DNC’s debate-qualifying thresholds.

"This mission creep might make Tom Perez’s life a little easier — democracy’s inherent messiness has always been a burden for party bosses — but it does an enormous disservice to voters who want to know all of their options as they make this critical decision," Bennet added. "Americans outside of Washington are just tuning into this primary. Instead of punishing them for doing so, Chairman Perez should revise these arbitrary thresholds and give every candidate a full and equal hearing before voting begins."

The result has been a chicken-and-egg effect: qualifying for the debates, especially by reaching certain polling benchmarks, has become increasingly difficult, while raising a candidate’s polling numbers has proven difficult without being on the debate stages.

The scene in Des Moines on Jan. 14 promises to be interesting. It’s easy to imagine the campaigns of many of the candidates who fail to qualify for the debate showing up in Iowa, perhaps even right on the Drake University campus, to hold their own event.

It will be their attempt to speak directly to Iowans, the people they thought would be influencing this primary.

What a day

Speaking of that Iowa debate, it is scheduled for Jan. 14. That also happens to also be the date Gov. Kim Reynolds will give her annual Condition of the State address to the Iowa Legislature. So, clear some extra time for your daily news consumption on that day. The governor’s address and her budget proposal will be delivered that morning, and the presidential debate in Des Moines will be held that evening.

All the news that’s fit to print, as they say.

Erin Murphy covers Iowa politics and government for Lee Enterprises. His email address is erin.murphy@lee.net. Follow him on Twitter at @ErinDMurphy.

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