Wednesday night’s Republican presidential primary debate will be defined by who isn’t there. Donald Trump, the overwhelming leader in the polls, has decided to skip it. Instead, North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum, former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, former South Carolina governor and United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley, former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, former Vice President Mike Pence, Vivek Ramaswamy, and Sen. Tim Scott will take the stage and try to make their mark, whether by taking each other down, taking on the absent Trump, or showing off their positive vision for the future. (Good luck with that last one.)
That doesn’t mean Trump is letting his competitors dominate the headlines this week, even though he’ll be at his Bedminster golf course during the debate. He’s planning to release an already recorded interview with former Fox News host Tucker Carlson online around the time of the debate. His big move is Thursday, though: He’ll turn himself in at the Fulton County jail “to be ARRESTED,” as he wrote on Truth Social. And with that, any attention that may have gone to the debate’s winners and losers will be wiped out unless one of the candidates has managed to arrange for an absolutely perfect one-liner about Trump’s Georgia charges to be played on repeat by cable news producers with time to kill while waiting for Trump to show up.
For the debate’s two hours, though, the eight candidates who both qualified to show up and bothered to do so will try to break through or, in the case of DeSantis, stop themselves from being written off as yesterday’s news. DeSantis is predictably trying to set expectations, saying Monday on Fox News, “I think that with Donald Trump not being there, I don’t think it’s any secret that I’m going to be probably the guy that people are going to come after.” It might also have something to do with looking like an easy target, Ron.
Fox News, meanwhile, is taking its role hosting the debate as a chance to show what a serious news network it is. The Washington Post helped out with the headline, “After Dominion case, GOP debate gives Fox News chance to burnish image.” It gets better: “With Trump off-stage, moderators Baier and MacCallum see a chance to look forward. Their performance could also bolster Fox’s credibility after defamation lawsuit, observers say.”
Those observers, apparently, are Republican pollster/pundit Frank Luntz and Frank Sesno, a former CNN Washington bureau chief who now works at George Washington University and would have testified for Dominion if the case had gone to trial. In reality, though, few viewers will be thinking, “Gee, Bret Baier and Martha MacCallum’s moderation of a Republican debate redeems Fox News after all those internal messages showing that they promoted election lies they knew were false.” Either people never cared about it—that would be most Republican primary voters—or they won’t fall for the idea that a show of toughness by Baier and MacCallum is a meaningful statement about the network’s overall orientation to reality. Obviously the very savvy political reporting establishment may be a different story.
A few Republican candidates failed to meet the debate requirements of 40,000 unique donors and meeting a 1% threshold in three national qualifying polls, and they are salty about it. “The debate process has been corrupted, plain and simple,” Some Dude Perry Johnson tweeted. “Our campaign hit every metric put forward by the RNC and we have qualified for the debate.”
Radio host Larry Elder was even more upset, announcing his intent “to sue the RNC to halt Wednesday's presidential debate.” He continued, “I said from the beginning that it appeared the rules of the game were rigged, little did we know just how rigged it is. For some reason, the establishment leaders at the RNC are afraid of having my voice on the debate stage. Just as I had to fight to successfully be on the ballot in the California recall election, I will fight to be on that debate stage because I fully met all of the requirements to do so.” Yeah, no doubt they’re terrified.
The debate is airing on Fox News at 9 PM ET on Wednesday. It will almost certainly be old news by the middle of the day Thursday as Trump uses his latest criminal charges to reclaim being the center of attention.
American political parties might often seem stuck in their ways, but they can and in fact do change positions often. Joining us on this week's episode of "The Downballot" is political scientist David Karol, who tells us how and why both the Democratic and Republican parties have adjusted their views on a wide range of issues over the years. Karol offers three different models for how these transformations happen—and explains why voters often stick with their parties even after these shifts. He concludes by offering tips to activists seeking to push their parties when they're not changing fast enough.