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For any Republican presidential candidate not named Donald Trump, making the first primary debate on August 23 in Milwaukee is an essential obstacle to overcome. It provides the first, and for many candidates maybe the only, opportunity to get their voices heard on the national stage.
It remains to be seen if Trump will show up for the debate, which will air on Fox News, but many of the candidates are getting creative and stretching campaign finance law to make the cut.
The Republican National Committee set minimum viability requirements that numerous candidates are having trouble meeting.
I talked to CNN’s national political writer Fredreka Schouten about what’s going on, whether it’s legal and what else she’s been learning about Trump and the other candidates from the campaign finance reports and personal financial disclosures that tell the real story.
WOLF: You write about creative ways Republicans are trying to get to 40,000 donors. What are they up to?
SCHOUTEN: What aren’t they doing?!
Some of the lesser-known candidates have tried some really unorthodox ways to meet one part of the requirement to make the Republican debate stage in August – that they must raise money from at least 40,000 unique donors (including at least 200 contributors in 20 states and territories).
In what appears to be the most generous offer: A super PAC backing Miami Mayor Francis Suarez’s bid for the GOP nomination is offering what it calls “Francis Free College Tuition” – seeking $1 contributions that would go to the candidate’s campaign to enter a sweepstakes that would give the winner up to $15,000 for a year of paid college tuition.
One of the more unusual tactics appears to have paid off already. North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum, a former software CEO who is financing his own presidential campaign, has offered $20 gift cards to 50,000 donors in exchange for a contribution of at least $1.
Burgum announced on CNN’s “Inside Politics” this week that he had met the donor threshold.
Former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, meanwhile, recently picked up an idea first advanced by another Republican presidential contender, entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy, and has decided to offer grassroots fundraisers a cut of the money they help collect on his behalf.
WOLF: This is essentially paying someone for a political contribution. How can that possibly be legal? And is there a precedent for this sort of thing?
SCHOUTEN: The strategy has sparked a lot of questions. Burgum’s campaign, for instance, insists that it has run the traps and his approach is legally sound.
Two campaign-finance experts I’ve interviewed say otherwise and argue that reimbursing a donor with a gift card could be construed as violating the federal law that prohibits straw donations – the practice of giving money in the name of another person. That’s not a universal opinion, however.
And, frankly, many candidates face little danger of running into real trouble with regulators.
Someone could file a complaint with the Federal Election Commission, arguing that the scheme violates the law. But the FEC – which is evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans – often struggles to agree on enforcement actions.
WOLF: Do we have a firm idea of who has qualified for the first debate at this point? And has Trump committed to take part?
SCHOUTEN: We actually don’t know who has qualified yet.
Several Republicans – ranging from Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis to former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Ramaswamy – say they have met the donor threshold.
But there are additional hurdles: Candidates must reach at least 1% in three national polls, or at least two national polls and two polls from separate early voting states. So, the polling picture still is coming into focus. Stay tuned.
The former president, who leads the current polls, certainly sounds as though he’s not inclined to join the debate fray next month but also says he hasn’t made up his mind. “When you have a big lead, you don’t do it,” Trump said of debating during a Fox News interview earlier this week.
WOLF: We’re learning a lot from fundraising reports. I was surprised, for instance, to see in your story that Christie brought in more contributions in the recent fundraising period than former Vice President Mike Pence. Which candidates are happy at the moment and which ones are freaking out?
SCHOUTEN: Pence, who raised about $1.2 million in the second quarter, is certainly struggling for a former vice president. But that perhaps is not surprising – given how large Trump, his former boss-turned-nemesis, looms over the hard-core Republican base.
Newer GOP entrants like Hutchinson and former Rep. Will Hurd still appear to have a long way to go to secure the money to sustain their campaigns – or even make the debate stage next month in Wisconsin.
We’ve focused a bit on DeSantis’ picture. He’s running second to Trump in polls, and he’s raised an enviable $20 million during the quarter. But about $3 million of that is general election money that can’t be spent for the primary. And he’s spent money at a fast clip, burning through about 40% of his total haul – in the first six weeks or so after entering the race.
Over the weekend, the campaign confirmed to CNN that it has trimmed some staff after Politico reported that “fewer than 10 staffers” in event planning had been cut.
(Our colleague Steve Contorno has a terrific story up about the state of the DeSantis campaign and whether there really is a big change in strategy afoot.)
WOLF: You’ve also written about the nearly $1 billion Trump and his wife Melania declared in recent financial disclosures that they generated as income since leaving the White House. How is Trump making money these days?
SCHOUTEN: The former president has business interests that span the globe – from golf courses to licensing deals. That hasn’t changed.
What I personally found interesting about the recent disclosure was how lucrative some of his speaking engagements have been.
Trump made $2.5 million to provide celebrity commentary at a pay-per-view boxing match, for instance. Meanwhile, Melania Trump was paid $155,000 to give a speech in 2021 to a pro-Trump super PAC – something that had not been clearly disclosed on the super PAC’s filings at the time.
WOLF: CNN reported last week that some Democrats are nervous about how seriously President Joe Biden is taking his reelection campaign. What does the fundraising data suggest?
SCHOUTEN: Biden’s fundraising – when combined with the Democratic National Committee’s – is about $72 million for the quarter, according to his campaign announcement. That’s a respectable amount, though off the pace set by President Barack Obama and the DNC at this point in Obama’s reelection.
The filings, however, show Biden spent very little money – which is certain to deepen the angst among some Democrats about his preparedness for reelection. He had, for instance, just four staffers on the campaign payroll as of June 30. (DeSantis, by contrast, had some 90 people on his campaign team.)
Possibly tempering Democrats’ worries: As the sitting president, the DNC can operate in support of his reelection – so the party’s staffing and resources benefit Biden. And there’s still a crowded field of Republicans who have to battle each other in the months ahead for the right to face Biden next fall.
WOLF: Finally, how does CNN go about reporting on this data? I’m routinely impressed by the details you and our colleagues like David Wright suss out of these reports. What are the broad strokes of how you go about it and what are the new challenges in this election?
SCHOUTEN: With lots of coffee and little sleep.
Well, more seriously, we have a plan each filing day about the storylines we need to pursue. David is often on the lookout for the reports landing on deadline and grabbing the top-line numbers that help show the overarching picture, while I might do a little more digging into individual filings.
We have to be really responsive to any breaking news we see in the reports and often will write individual stories about interesting developments. A day later, we usually publish a broad takeaways story to give our audience a sense of all the major headlines in presidential and congressional races.
And then we’ll keep digging some more.
Luckily, a colleague on CNN’s data visuals team, Alex Leeds Matthews, has joined us to do some more data analysis. Her number crunching led to an interesting graphic published earlier this week that details how much Trump’s campaign has benefited financially from his legal troubles this year.
One of the challenges in this election is just the sheer number of Republican presidential candidates – and their aligned super PACs that we will follow – along with the growing use of so-called “dark money” – or undisclosed money – engaged in campaigns on both sides of the political aisle.
In every election cycle, candidates and their allies find some new way to raise and spend money, and we must find new ways to track it.
David adds this important note that sums up why the sleepless nights are worth it: “Politics is full of spin and reliable data can be hard to come by, but money – who has it, who doesn’t and how it’s spent – often tells the story.”