Revolt of the Duopoly

I noted yesterday that New Hampshire Republicans had sent a letter of protest to Fox News and the Republican National Committee about the use of national poll standings to qualify candidates for participation in the first sanctioned debate on August 6. Now the Union-Leader newspaper, long a power in NH GOP politics, has upped the ante (per its own report):

On the same August night that Fox News hosts a much-criticized and limited Republican presidential debate in Cleveland, the Union Leader will host a New Hampshire Presidential Forum in the first primary state.

It will be televised nationally by C-SPAN, which will also broadcast it on radio.

Union Leader Publisher Joseph W. McQuaid said the newspaper has been considering such a forum for some time. He said an open protest letter sent Wednesday to Fox and the Republican National Committee from 56 prominent state Republicans should be a wake-up call to everyone in New Hampshire.

“What Fox is attempting to do, and is actually bragging about doing, is a real threat to the first-in-the-nation primary,” McQuaid said. “Fox boasts that it will ‘winnow’ the field of candidates before New Hampshire gets to do so. That isn’t just bad for New Hampshire, it’s bad for the presidential selection process by limiting the field to only the best-known few with the biggest bankrolls. Why the RNC and, especially, its New Hampshire representative, Steve Duprey, would defend this and be a party to it is baffling.”

The bit about “bragging” is a reference to a comment by Fox News’ Chris Wallace, the moderator for the first debate, in response to grousing from Iowa and New Hampshire that the debate participation criteria were undercutting their role in vetting candidates and “winnowing” the field:

A lot of people would say around the country, we’ve given Iowa and New Hampshire enough of a role and maybe the nation should play something of a role.

Them’s fighting words to lifelong defenders of the Iowa/NH duopoly. And so it was predictable that they would fire back. But their weapons are not logic and sweet persuasion, but rather the power to use their leverage over candidates. And so while this “forum” the Union-Leader is sponsoring the same day as the Fox News debate may sound like an alternative forum for those who don’t make the cut for the “real event,” I betcha the next step will be an effort to get the candidates who do make the cut to boycott Chris Wallace and snuggle up to the Union-Leader.

The other prediction I don’t have any doubts about making is that pols and journalists in Iowa will soon join this crusade for the duopoly, overcoming their own ancient rivalry with the Granite State, and perhaps resentment that the Union-Leader was, er, “first in the nation” in challenging the Fox News debate.

Could it work? Hard to say. There’s a lot of talk this year about “late-state strategies” that give short shrift to Iowa and New Hampshire; candidates pursuing such strategies can’t be expected to go along with some snake-and-bully routine aimed at forcing the RNC and big media outlets to get off their turf. But with the possible exception of Ted Cruz, nobody’s talking about skipping or shirking both states.

The big question is whether any candidates get on board the Duopoly Bandwagon, thus creating the competitive pressure for others to publicly or privately ask the RNC to change the debate format or the criteria for participation. You’d figure the bottom-feeders would have no disincentive to do so, and Matt Bai actually makes a decent case that it would be smart for somebody to loudly posture against the “un-democratic” debates.

The New Hampshire rebels will presumably be smart enough to avoid making the Union-Leader event an “unsanctioned” debate rather than just another cattle call, since under the RNC rules attending an unsanctioned debate means you don’t get to participate in any of the eleven “real” debates. But we’ll have to see. This has already been a nerve-wracking Invisible Primary for the duopoly, what with the Iowa Straw Poll in jeopardy and a huge field upsetting a lot of calculations. Could be Iowans and New Hampshirites are freaking out.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.