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This week, we dive into Donald Trump’s new debate stunt. Plus, a chat with Sen. Bob Menendez’s Democratic primary challenger in New Jersey post-indictment, and a look forward to Ron DeSantis’ potentially ill-advised debate with Gavin Newsom.
He’s seen enough
So far, Donald Trump and his campaign have tried to turn a big potential weakness—their decision to skip the GOP’s official primary debates—into shows of strength.
Against the first debate, Trump sat down for an interview with Tucker Carlson; against the second, he traveled to Michigan to supposedly burnish his blue-collar cred—by speaking to non-union auto workers.
But now, the Trump campaign is trying a new play: calling for the Republican Party to scuttle the remaining debates altogether.
“Tonight’s GOP debate was as boring and inconsequential as the first debate, and nothing that was said will change the dynamics of the primary contest being dominated by President Trump,” Chris LaCivita, one of the top two Trump campaign advisers, wrote in a tweet.
“The RNC should immediately put an end to any further primary debates so we can train our fire on Crooked Joe Biden and quit wasting time and money that could be going to evicting Biden from the White House,” he said.
Trump himself echoed those calls in an interview with the Daily Caller as he flew back to Florida from Michigan.
“They have to stop the debates,” Trump said. “Because it is just bad for the Republican Party. They are not going anywhere. There is not going to be a breakout candidate.”
It may have been a new demand from Trump’s team, but the sentiment behind it is not. Since launching his campaign, the former president has sought to run as an incumbent, rather than a one-term president who cost his party the House, Senate, and White House in just four years.
Despite their modest attacks on Trump’s no-shows—or, in Chris Christie’s case, his outright taunting of the former president—the rest of the field has failed to goad him into showing up.
Scrapping future debates might sound easy, but in practice, it would be enormously difficult: the Republican National Committee is locked into pricey contracts and other obligations to the remaining TV networks and venues that agreed to host their debates.
A debate in Miami is already on the calendar for Nov. 8, though the venue and network hosts have yet to be announced. Beyond that, none of the future debates have been officially announced, though at a minimum, it’s expected there will be one in January, around the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary.
As one RNC source involved in debate planning put it, canceling the rest of them is simply “not gonna happen.”
A second RNC source told The Daily Beast “the show must go on,” despite Trump staying away.
“The RNC can’t help that Big Orange doesn’t want to participate in the debates,” the second RNC source said, “and the RNC can’t help that the rest of these candidates are a total snoozefest. What are we supposed to do, shut down shop?”
Republicans close to the official party organization aren’t exactly sweating Trump’s threats, however.
“He’s just trolling them,” a Trump adviser told The Daily Beast. “[The debates] really are a waste of time, and his counter-programming has gotten more buzz, especially the Tucker interview. But I’m pretty sure he just enjoys making their lives miserable.”
“After watching the first two GOP debates, Trump looks like a genius for not participating,” another source in Trump's orbit said. “And there is no reason for him to participate in any future debates with the clowns on stage last night.”
Even if the Trump campaign’s calls to end the debates are mostly trolling, the shot across the bow has exposed a core anxiety among Republicans. If Trump continues to hold a commanding lead in the polls, and past debates haven’t offered a breakout moment for any of his challengers, what exactly is the point of doing them?
GOP insiders don’t seem to have a better answer to the question—other than simply soldiering on.
“Even if the primary is performative at this point,” the second RNC source continued, “the performance must go on. If anybody should get that, it’s Trump with his showbiz background. The show must go on, even when the star has left to do major-budget movies and we’re left over here, scraping along off Broadway.”
The five words that earned Bob Menendez a primary challenger
Before Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ) was indicted on criminal corruption charges last Friday, Rep. Andy Kim (D-NJ) had no plans to challenge him for his Senate seat.
Kim had already decided his logo for his 2024 reelection campaign in his central Jersey district, ready to continue his work in the House.
Yet somewhere between taking his kids for an annual checkup at the local pediatrician’s office on Friday and his son’s birthday party the next day, Kim and a handful of his most loyal former staffers “literally put the campaign together in about three hours.”
“It was easily the most spontaneous decision of my career,” Kim told The Daily Beast in a phone interview on Thursday. He was at the doctor’s office with his kids when he found out about the indictment, but it wasn’t until he saw Menendez’s statement that he began to think about running.
It was one line from the senator that set Kim off: “I’m not going anywhere.”
“That was what triggered me. That was the breaking point for me,” Kim said. He turned to his wife upon reading it and said, “he’s not gonna resign—I think I might run against him.”
Kim and his wife dropped the kids off “at grandpa’s house,” and began seriously thinking through the ramifications of taking on a 17-year incumbent infamous for wielding his power in New Jersey like an old-school political boss.
“My career in the House of Representatives is going to come to an end,” Kim said. “I’m putting everything on the line. I’m going all in here, because I feel that strongly about this. And honestly, it’s kind of bigger than just this moment.”
Kim was first elected in 2018, flipping a Republican seat and holding it until redistricting gave him more favorable turf in 2022. A former National Security Council official under Barack Obama, Kim went viral after the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol, when he was pictured helping clean up the rubble and detritus that rioters left behind.
While Menendez has said he will not resign, he has not made clear yet whether he will run for reelection in 2024. Kim could end up running against him, or he could be the first of several Democrats to compete in a crowded primary to succeed the longtime senator.
In any case, Kim said he’s running to restore New Jerseyans’ faith in government, and promised to run a campaign of “integrity” focused on “the role of elected officials and what that sense of integrity and trust means to the American people.”
After announcing his bid in the Saturday afternoon post on X, the platform formerly known as Twitter, Kim said his phone became “unusable” because of “the sheer amount of text messages and constant phone calls.” The most encouraging, Kim said, were from former campaign staffers, some of whom are in the process of quitting their jobs to rejoin his team and help his Senate bid in any way possible.
Crucially, Kim also needed buy-in from his family, including from his eldest boy at a crucial time: a game of Legos at his birthday party.
“I actually had to ask my 8-year-old permission to send that tweet,” Kim said with a chuckle.
“We sat them down Sunday night and just explained to them what happened, and I brought out a picture of the Capitol,” Kim added. “I’m like, you’re on this side. This is where I work. You guys have been there. I am trying to see if I can work on the other side of the building.”
The DeSantis debate(s)
Despite his backers demanding a decisive breakout performance, Ron DeSantis emerged from the second primary debate about the same way he did from the first: unscathed, but lacking a standout moment to jolt his stalling campaign.
In November, the Florida governor will confront two more debates. And Republican insiders aren’t sure which might be more perilous: the one against DeSantis’ actual competitors, or the one against a guy who isn’t running for anything.
The Nov. 8 debate in Miami will likely be DeSantis’ last chance to gain an edge over the challenger field before Iowa. But his Nov. 30 one-on-one debate with California Gov. Gavin Newsom might actually be the clearest indication of whether DeSantis is ready for prime time.
The Florida governor’s decision to commit to a marquee bout with a Democrat who is not Joe Biden—hated though he may be on the right—has struck many Democrats and Republicans as somewhat baffling.
Newsom himself seems to think so. Wandering the spin room at Wednesday’s debate, which took place in his home state, the California governor mocked his counterpart for even agreeing to debate him.
“The fact he took the bait… shows he’s completely unqualified to be president,” Newsom said. “Why is he debating a guy who is not even running for president?”
The Biden camp seems to have an uneasy relationship with Newsom—who perhaps lingered too long as a potential 2024 threat—but Republicans privately say the contrast between him and DeSantis could, at the very least, embarrass the latter.
“Gavin Newsom is a political Houdini,” one of Trump’s top 2016 advisers who no longer supports the former president told The Daily Beast. “He is smooth and can sell his delivery.”
The former Trump adviser, who at one point was DeSantis-curious, warned that the Florida governor’s fondness for touting Florida’s ultra-conservative record could backfire, should he have any hope of making it to the general election.
“This ‘debate’ will draw a clear line in the sand specifically for the abortion and gun issues that affect the key voting block needed to win: women,” the former Trump adviser said.
However, a source close to the DeSantis campaign said there remains a consensus within the same orbit of DeSantis that debating Newsom is still a good idea.
The Republican added that part of the strategy is to plant a seed in voters’ minds. Instead of loathing a Trump-Biden rematch, they can briefly imagine an alternative.
“Newsom, if anybody gives him airspace, he’s gonna be the candidate for the Democrats,” the DeSantis adviser predicted. “I guarantee it. And anybody who hasn’t figured that out is incredibly stupid.”
The DeSantis campaign did not respond to a request for comment.
Though Fox News’ Sean Hannity will serve as moderator for the one-on-one, the Florida governor’s fondness for endless comparative politics between state policies could end up being his Achilles’ heel.
“The real question,” the former Trump adviser said, “is does Ron have the ability to out-sell Newsom? We shall see!”
Among some DeSantis supporters, however, there’s an appetite for the candidate to spend less time on the Newsom debate and more time correcting the fundamentals of his campaign.
Some early state supporters of DeSantis want him to press the flesh with voters as much as possible, to put himself in the best position for the third debate with his GOP rivals.
“In order for DeSantis to improve his positioning, the dipshit has to go hang with the voters and stop dealing with potential donors,” a source close to the DeSantis campaign told The Daily Beast.
The DeSantis ally, who requested anonymity to speak candidly about campaign strategy, described their recommendation to the campaign and PAC as something akin to the late Sen. John McCain’s “Straight Talk Express.”
In a similar predicament to the one DeSantis finds himself in now, McCain was coming out of the summer of 1999 trailing George W. Bush by an even wider margin—more than 50 points in Gallup by late June—and shook things up by bombarding New Hampshire with small scale events and a storied bus tour with full access to reporters.
But, this supporter said, DeSantis’ operation hasn’t been receptive to the idea. “We’re not getting any traction,” they said. “Tallahassee isn’t listening. I can’t fix that.”
Off the Beaten Path
AI Hutchinson. In one of the more overlooked yet strangest developments of the primary so far, former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson’s campaign has been experimenting with, of all things, generative artificial intelligence tools. Launching a model called the “Ask Asa AI interface” on Wednesday, the Hutchinson team invited users to hit the bot version of the candidate with their hardest questions.
Let’s just say it’s no ChatGPT.
We tried asking the Asa bot which candidate he would have “voted off the island” at the debate, and what that kind of question says about U.S. politics as a spectacle.
The AI model crashed, and The Daily Beast was unable to ask another question.
Working DeRefs? It took Ron DeSantis 16 minutes to get a first word in during Wednesday night’s debate, and the governor’s network of online influencers took notice. It was the first of several moments when pro-DeSantis social media figures complained the deck was stacked against him at the debate, from Univision moderator Ilia Calderón’s question on Florida’s state education guidelines on slavery to the Survivor-esque question. Some long simmering gripes with Fox, for appearing to shift its favor toward Nikki Haley, began to emerge to the surface, and a smattering of DeSantis fans even floated the idea of the governor skipping the next debate.
Ayotte backs away. After The Daily Beast exclusively reported another link between New Hampshire Republican gubernatorial candidate Kelly Ayotte and white supremacists—in this case, a nascent neo-Nazi group whose actual name is the New England White Network—the candidate and former U.S. senator denounced the endorsement, according to The Boston Globe.
“I abhor racism, racists, and anyone who attempts to divide Granite Staters,” Ayotte said. “The disgusting commentary made by this individual has no place in our politics or our state and should not be granted oxygen by my Democrat opponents or the liberal media trying to score political points against me.”
Inside the GOP’s U-turn on Ukraine. Matt Fuller and Sam Brodey took a deep dive into how aiding Ukraine's defense became such a toxic issue among Congressional Republicans, speaking to more than 30 members about how we got here.
Dime novel. Roger Sollenberger had a scoop in this week’s Pay Dirt newsletter on Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas once again failing to disclose some outside income, this time involving a book with a $1.5 million advance.
Hate the sin, love the sinner? Insider’s Bryan Metzger picked up a scoop on New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker defending his indicted colleague Bob Menendez in a private senators’ lunch—and, crucially, after Booker called on the senior senator to resign.
The Youngkin cavalry. The movement to draft Glenn Youngkin for an eleventh-hour presidential bid is still strong among anxious elite Republicans, Robert Costa reports in the Washington Post.
The Roe doctrine. Puck’s Tara Palmeri broke down how DeSantis’ New Hampshire strategy is failing, with parallels to Ted Cruz in 2016.