Voters will see three names printed in a single row on their ballots when they make their pick in New Hampshire’s high-stakes contest for U.S. Senate. How many of those three candidates will voters see if they tune in for the debates? Likely just two.
Democratic incumbent Sen. Maggie Hassan and her Republican challenger, retired Gen. Don Bolduc, have both agreed to three debates, with Bolduc calling for Hassan to accept more. But debate organizers haven't invited Libertarian candidate Jeremy Kauffman to participate, even though he's on the ballot.
Frankly, it's easy to see why Kauffman's campaign hasn't made the cut. Just 3% to 5% of likely voters said they would pick him in several recentpollsthatincluded him in the list of candidates. Bolduc, meanwhile, had backing from 41% to 45% of likely voters, and Hassan maintained her lead at 48% to 50%, according to the polls.
Kauffman had raised just $25,000 as of late last month, according to Federal Election Commission filings. Bolduc and Hassan have raised more than $1.6 million and $36.5 million, respectively, according to their FEC filings.
With just over two weeks to go, Kauffman clearly isn’t positioned to win this race. But he could win an appreciable number of the votes. And his exclusion from the debates raises interesting questions about the role such prominent events (and those who organize them) play in New Hampshire’s electoral process. Can media organizations that sponsor debates exclude third-party candidates? Should they?
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Kauffman and his campaign manager, Justin O’Donnell, have made their stance on the matter clear. They called on WMUR, NHPR and other organizations to open their debate stages to all candidates on the ballot. That’s the only objective way to decide who’s in and who’s out, O’Donnell said.
“The role of the media is not to judge, pick, and choose winners, but to represent the facts and options to the voters in an unbiased manner,” O’Donnell said in an email.
Kauffman has already been excluded from two of the three Senate debates that both Hassan and Bolduc have agreed to attend. The Mt. Washington Valley Economic Council hosted a two-candidate debate on Oct. 18 in Conway, and NHPR will host a two-candidate debate on Oct. 27 in Concord.
That leaves WMUR, which has yet to officially announce whether Kauffman will be invited to the station's televised debate. (Update: WMUR announced Oct. 26 that Hassan and Bolduc will be the only two candidates in the Nov. 2 debate.)
Early this month, WMUR published its eligibility criteria, giving candidates until Monday, Oct. 17, to qualify. Before that deadline, WMUR Creative Services Director Christina Rule said the station would continue assessing the relevant data through that cutoff date and announce the debate schedule thereafter. Rule didn't respond to additional questions after the deadline passed.
While some elements of WMUR’s criteria are unquestionably objective, others leave certain details open to interpretation. That led Kauffman and O’Donnell to accuse WMUR of setting subjective eligibility criteria. Their accusation matters because the FEC explicitly requires debate organizers to use “pre-established objective criteria” to determine which candidates may participate.
If a debate organizer inappropriately excludes certain candidates, then the FEC could view debate-related expenditures as an illegal corporate contribution to whichever candidates were invited.
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