Dear John: Kasich May Miss Cut in Ohio Debate
The 10-candidate cap set by Fox News for the first Republican debate has raised the awkward possibility that a state’s sitting governor could be excluded from a forum held on his home turf.
The Aug. 6 debate will be in Cleveland’s Quicken Loans Arena, the same venue that will host the Republican National Convention in July 2016. But only the candidates who rank in the top 10 in national polling will be invited to the Fox News forum, the network announced Wednesday — meaning Ohio Gov. John Kasich might not make the cut.
In public, Kasich’s allies are expressing confidence that he will meet the threshold come August.
“We believe that if Gov. Kasich decides to run, he will be on the stage in Cleveland,” said Chris Schrimpf, a spokesman for the Ohio Republican Party.
But Kasich, who is thought to be laying the groundwork for a campaign, although he has not announced his candidacy, currently scores just 2 percent in the RealClearPolitics national polling average, putting him outside of the top 10 candidates.
Now, behind the scenes, it is his political team’s “top focus to try and get him in the debate,” said a Republican operative with ties to Kasich.
“It would just be flat-out embarrassing if he didn't meet the top 10 threshold in his home state," the operative said.
That objective poses an unusual strategic challenge. Normally, candidates focus their spending during the primary solely on winning the key states on the path to the party’s nomination. But national polls can be influenced by purchasing ads on national television — and candidates on the bubble for debates will need to decide whether to splurge on that advertising.
Kasich is not the only candidate who may face this dilemma: Texas Gov. Rick Perry, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina, former New York Gov. George Pataki, former Sen. Rick Santorum and Sen. Lindsey Graham could also be vying for the tenth slot come August.
But the stakes are perhaps more personal for Kasich, who lobbied hard to bring the Republican National Convention to Cleveland — and now might be blocked from debating in the very venue that will later host the convention.
In spite of the potential awkwardness and the obstacles the debate format will present to lower-tier candidates, the Republican National Committee has nevertheless thrown its full weight behind Fox’s decision.
“We support and respect the decision Fox has made, which will match the greatest number of candidates we have ever had on a debate stage,” RNC Chairman Reince Priebus said after Fox announced its criteria.
The RNC decided it would leave it to each debate’s host to decide the threshold candidates must meet to participate, meaning each debate will be handled differently. While Fox News will limit its August debate stage to 10 candidates, CNN will divide its September primary debate into two stages: the first for the top 10 candidates and the second for the remainder.
“They asked for input and ideas,” said Steve Duprey, a New Hampshire committeeman and chairman of the RNC’s 2016 debate committee. “Our input was to make the debates as inclusive as you can.”
Although Kasich has not yet commented publicly on the Fox News debate configuration, other Republican candidates who might be left out have begun to make noise
Santorum, who barely registered in national polling at the start of the 2012 Republican primary contest, but went on to place second to Mitt Romney, told the National Journal on Thursday that the debate thresholds are "arbitrary" and "not legitimate."
“Hopefully they put it out there and they're going to listen to what the comments are, and factor those in, and determine what is the right way,” Santorum said.
In a conciliatory gesture, Fox News host Greta Van Susteren invited those candidates who do not make the network’s debate to appear on her show that same evening.
But then, Kasich would give up his a home-field advantage for a smaller stage — an outcome his team will be working to avoid.