Bullock accuses Steyer of buying his way onto the 2020 debate stage

Montana Gov. Steve Bullock is accusing billionaire environmental and progressive advocate Tom Steyer -- a rival for the Democratic presidential nomination -- of trying to buy his way “onto the debate stage.”

"We’re kidding ourselves if we’re calling a $10 million purchase of 130,000 donors a demonstration of grassroots support,” Bullock said in a Tuesday statement. “It’s not serving the candidates, and it sure isn’t helping the voters who will actually decide this election.”


Steyer, a philanthropist who made his fortune as a hedge fund manager, declared his candidacy a month ago. But he jumped into the race too late to qualify for the second round of Democratic presidential primary debates, which took place late last month.

On Tuesday, though, Steyer announced that he’s received campaign contributions from at least 130,000 individual donors. That's one of the Democratic National Committee’s two qualifying thresholds to make the stage at the third and fourth rounds of debates, which will be held in September and October.

Steyer’s campaign said that their candidate “met the donor requirement within just five weeks of entering the race, averaging over 26,000 donors a week.”

And they highlighted that Steyer was just one poll away from reaching the other DNC criteria to make the upcoming debates by reaching at least 2 percent in four qualifying national surveys or polls in the early primary and caucus voting states.

None of that is sitting well with Bullock, who faces an uphill climb to reach the thresholds to qualify for the upcoming debates.

Hours after Steyer announced he was closing in on making the debate stage, Bullock took aim, saying in a statement that “the DNC donor requirement may have been added with the right intentions, but there’s no doubt that it’s created a situation in which billionaires can buy their way onto the debate stage, and campaigns are forced to spend millions on digital ads chasing one dollar donors — not talking directly to voters.”

Bullock, who announced his candidacy in mid-May, failed to make the stage at the first debate in late June but did qualify for the second round in late July.

Steyer's campaign shot back.

Steyer campaign manager Heather Hargreaves highlighted that “fewer than half of Tom's donations came from advertising. Writing off the support of thousands of Democratic voters who are responding to Tom’s message isn’t the way to beat Trump in 2020, no matter what you think about the DNC’s criteria.”

Since launching his presidential campaign, Steyer’s spent millions of his own money to win a spot on the stage. He's done that through television commercials on national cable networks such as CNN and MSNBC and flooding the local airwaves in Iowa and New Hampshire – the first two states to vote in the nominating calendar – with ads. He’s also spent heavily on direct mail, filling up the mailboxes of Democratic and independent voters.


He also shelled out big bucks to access the millions of voter files built up by two organizations he started and still funds -- Need to Impeach and the grassroots organizing group NextGen America.

With 15 days to go to reach the thresholds, nine candidates have already secured a spot on the stage for the third and fourth rounds. They are former Vice President Joe Biden; Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont; Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts; Sen. Kamala Harris of California; Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey; Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota; South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg; former Rep. Beto O’Rourke of Texas and entrepreneur Andrew Yang.

Besides Steyer, Rep. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii and former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro have reached the fundraising threshold.

Even if Gabbard and Castro -- and possibly Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York -- make the cut, about half of the record-setting field of two-dozen candidates may still sit out the September debate. Those contenders would still have another month to try to make the stage for the October showdown.