Democracy 2020 Digest: Bloomberg, who gave big to DNC, gets controversial boost from party

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The Democratic National Committee on Friday unveiled new criteria for candidates to qualify for the Feb. 19 presidential nomination debate in Nevada -- including a big change likely to pave the way for former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg to make the stage for the first time.

The move by the DNC was quickly criticized by a number of Bloomberg’s rivals for the nomination, among them Sens. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts.

BLOOMBERG AD SPENDING TOPS A QUARTER BILLION DOLLARS

The DNC’s action comes as Bloomberg’s seen his national poll numbers rise in recent weeks – as the multibillionaire business and media mogul’s campaigned across the country and spent more than a quarter of a billion dollars to blanket the TV airwaves from coast to coast with commercials.

And the move comes two months after Bloomberg contributed more than $300,000 to the DNC. Federal Election Commission records indicate that Bloomberg made three separate donations of $106,500 to the national party committee on Nov. 19, five days before he declared his candidacy for president.

Asked about those contributions, Bloomberg campaign spokesperson Julie Wood told Fox News: "Mike has been a longtime donor to progressive causes and has been giving to the DNC, state parties and candidates up and down the ballot ever since Trump won the election. The only way Democrats will defeat Trump in November is with a strong Democratic party, and Mike is proud to have contributed to the party."

The DNC has three accounts – one for the presidential election, another for election recounts and other legal proceedings, and third for the national party headquarters building in the nation’s capital. Individuals, according to FEC contribution guidelines, can contribute a maximum of $106,500 to each party account – which is what Bloomberg appeared to do.

All of the debates in the first eight rounds -- including the upcoming Feb. 7 debate in New Hampshire -- have included both polling and individual donor thresholds for the candidates to reach to qualify for the primetime showdowns.

But starting with the Nevada debate, which will be held in Las Vegas three days before the state's caucuses, the DNC is dropping the individual contributor requirements. That could allow Bloomberg to finally qualify. The candidate has avoided fundraising and seeking out individual donors as he self-funds his White House bid.

“We are thrilled that voters could soon have the chance to see Mike Bloomberg on the debate stage, hear his vision for the country, and see why he is the strongest candidate to defeat Donald Trump and bring our country together,” Bloomberg’s campaign manager, Kevin Skeekey, said.

To make the stage in Las Vegas, candidates will need to reach 10 percent support in four national polls or surveys in Nevada and South Carolina, which holds its primary a week after Nevada and is the final of the four early states to hold a contest. Alternatively, the White House hopefuls can qualify by reaching 12 percent in two polls conducted in Nevada or South Carolina. The polls must be released between Jan. 15 and Feb. 18, the day before the Nevada debate.

The showdown in Las Vegas takes place after the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary -- and any candidate who earns at least one delegate from either of those contests to the party’s national presidential nominating convention in July in Milwaukee will also qualify for the Nevada showdown.

Rivals slam DNC’s debate move

Fox News’ Alex Rego, Tara Prindiville, Andrew Craft, Allie Raffa, Andres del Agiula and Rob DiRienzo highlight that the DNC's change to the debate criteria were quickly criticized by a number Bloomberg’s rivals.

“To now change the rules in the middle of the game to accommodate Mike Bloomberg, who is trying to buy his way into the Democratic nomination, is wrong. That’s the definition of a rigged system,” senior Bernie Sanders campaign adviser Jeff Weaver said in a statement soon after the news of the DNC’s move broke.

During his 2016 run for the Democratic nomination, Sanders and supporters heavily criticized the DNC for a lack of debates. After months of protests, Sanders and his rival -- eventual nominee Hillary Clinton -- agreed with the DNC to add more debates later in the primary calendar.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts also slammed the move.

"The DNC didn’t change the rules to ensure good, diverse candidates could remain on the debate stage. They shouldn’t change the rules to let a billionaire on. Billionaires shouldn't be allowed to play by different rules — on the debate stage, in our democracy, or in our government," she tweeted.

Another 2020 contender, Rep. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii, also attacked the decision, saying on Twitter that "Billionaire Bloomberg just bought the @DNC."

And tech entrepreneur Andrew Yang's presidential campaign also took aim at the DNC. “It's a mistake for @TheDemocrats to change the rules for debates in the middle of this race to yield to a billionaire. We need to respect the grassroots movement leading this party forward,” Yang campaign communications director SY Lee wrote on Twitter.

Even fellow billionaire and 2020 rival Tom Steyer -- an environmental and progressive advocate -- criticized the national party's move.

"Changing the rules now to accommodate Mike Bloomberg and not changing them in the past to ensure a more diverse debate stage is just plain wrong," Steyer said in a statement.

Former Vice President Joe Biden – when asked for reaction to the DNC’s move by reporters as he campaigned in Iowa – said, “He’s not even on the ballot in Nevada.”

Bloomberg, due to his late entry into the race, is not competing in the early voting states of Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina, and instead is concentrating his campaign in the delegate-rich Super Tuesday states and beyond.

Former South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg – who like Biden, Steyer and Yang – is on the campaign trail in the Hawkeye State also weighed in.

“I will leave it up to the DNC to set the rules and we will compete under them. When the initial rules came out it was focused on grassroots fundraising. Sounds like there is a different focus,” Buttigieg told reporters.

The DNC had signaled for a month or two that they would possibly revisit the criteria in late January.

"Now that the grassroots support is actually captured in real voting, the criteria will no longer require a donor threshold," the DNC's Adrienne Watson told Fox News. "The donor threshold was appropriate for the opening stages of the race, when candidates were building their organizations and there were no metrics available outside of polling to distinguish those making progress from those who weren’t.”

Warren spends more than she raised

Fox News’ Prindiville spotlights that new FEC data shows that Warren’s presidential campaign spent more than $33 million in the final three months of 2019. But that’s $12 million more than the $21.2 million the senator brought in during the fourth quarter of fundraising.

The progressive standard-bearer from Massachusetts started the quarter with $25.7 million cash on hand and ended the year with $13.7 million in her campaign coffers.

Jan. 31 is the date that the presidential campaigns had to file their fourth quarter reports to the FEC.

With the calendar moving from 2019 to 2020, the presidential campaigns now have to report monthly on the fundraising figures. Friday was the final day of the January period, and the campaigns have 20 days to report their numbers.

Pro-Biden Super PAC spending its haul

The super PAC "Unite the County" – which is supporting former Vice President Joe Biden’s White House bid  – on Friday announced that it hauled in $7.6 million from its formation on Oct. 29 through the end of 2019.

The PAC told Fox News earlier this week that it’s spent $6 million for TV and digital ads and mailers in Iowa in support of the former vice president.

Biden struggled with fundraising since jumping into the White House race last April.

And as Raffa pointed out, the former vice president's filing Friday with the FEC indicated that he spent - $23.3 million - as much as he raised in the final three months of 2019. And his cash on hand as of Dec. 31 - which stood at $8.9 million - trailed Warren, Buttigieg, and Sanders.

Biden's being vastly outspent by rivals Sanders, Warren and Buttigieg in the Iowa ad wars.

But when you factor in the money "Unite the Country" is spending on Biden’s behalf, it’s a very different picture.

“We’re trying to level the playing field,” Larry Rasky, a longtime Biden friend and adviser, Democratic consultant and one of the co-founders of the super PAC, told Fox News. “We’re trying to make sure Biden’s message and record are being delivered.”

The biggest single donor to the super PAC -- San Francisco real estate mogul George Marcus – contributed $1 million.