On Sunday, one day after publicly calling on the Democratic National Committee to host more presidential debates, Hawaii Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard allegedly had her invitation to the first debate rescinded.
Gabbard, a vice-chair with the Democratic National Committee, says the disinvitation came as surprise. “When I signed up to be vice chair of the D.N.C., no one told me I would be relinquishing my freedom of speech and checking it at the door,” she told The New York Times.
But some Democrats say her fallout with the DNC should come as no surprise. In a conspiracy theory gaining momentum since the DNC announced its debate dates this August, a number of Bernie Sanders and Martin O’Malley supporters argue that the DNC is restricting debates in collusion with Hillary Clinton, in order to reduce other candidates’ visibility.
“I think the DNC, led by Debbie Wasserman Schultz and people close to Hillary’s camp, purposely tried to reduce the number of debates to try to mitigate any challengers to her supposed coronation,” Jon Fuhrer, an organizer with the Brooklyn-based ‘Bushwick Berners’ group, told The Daily Beast.
The DNC has only planned six presidential debates for the 2016 race, down from 26 debates in the 2008 cycle. The DNC did not respond to a request for comment, although a Gabbard staffer confirmed to The Daily Beast that the group had rescinded the congresswoman’s invitation to tonight’s debate, supposedly over her call for an expanded schedule.
Gabbard is not alone in agitating for more Democratic debates. In a September rally, O’Malley and Sanders supporters protested outside DNC headquarters, calling on the committee to expand its debate schedule.
When asked whether she believed the DNC to be protecting Hillary, O’Malley spokesperson Lis Smith told The Daily Beast, “In the absence of them offering any other excuse, I think that has to be the natural assumption.”
The comparative lack of debates is only one factor limiting the reach of non-Clinton candidates, say some DNC conspiracy theorists.
The first Democratic debate, airing on CNN tonight, will coincide with a Major League Baseball playoff game. The next two debates will air on Saturday, timeslots that usually garner low viewerships; college football games might also conflict with the debate. The second of these dates is December 19, one of the busiest holiday shopping days of the year. The fourth Democratic debate will take place during the National Football League playoffs.
“These debates are scheduled on the weekends when no one watches, or during the holidays. It's like, are you trying to get people to watch?” Moumita Ahmed, an organizer with People for Bernie Sanders, told The Daily Beast.
Ahmed pointed to Wasserman Schultz’s history of co-chairing Clinton’s 2008 presidential campaign. “It's a little bit strange because Debbie Wasserman was [Hillary's] campaign manager,” she said of the debate schedule. “In my opinion, I think it is to help Hillary and give her the nomination."
Sanders’s and O’Malley’s supporters are also suspicious of the DNC’s exclusivity clause, an agreement that bars Democratic candidates from participating in any debate not sanctioned by the DNC. According to O’Malley’s camp, the DNC promised they would not issue an exclusivity clause, then reversed their decision one hour before releasing their debate schedule.
“I think it's really unfair to monopolize that process and say that, ‘Hey, if you don’t hold debates through the DNC, you’re penalized,’” Ahmed said. “That’s such a violation of our rights and this process.”
According to Fuhrer, it’s all part of the party’s scheme to boost Clinton’s chances, while keep other candidates in check.
“I think they purposely are trying to prevent people from watching the debates,” Fuhrer said. “The less debates there are and less people who watch, the easier it will be for Hillary to win.”
Sanders’s staff has been less willing to brand the debate schedule as a DNC conspiracy. But the campaign was quick to come to Gabbard’s aid after she was ousted from the first debate.
“If she needs a ticket, have her give me a call,” Jeff Weaver, Sanders’s campaign manager told CNN on Monday. “I think we have a couple; we can give her one.”