Democrats set to hold second presidential primary debate in Detroit

Melissa Nann Burke
The Detroit News
Independent presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., speaks during the We the People Membership Summit, featuring the 2020 Democratic presidential candidates, at the Warner Theater, in Washington, Monday, April 1, 2019.

Washington — Democrats will hold their second presidential primary debate in Detroit in late July — a nod to the importance that Michigan will play in the 2020 election. 

The Democratic National Committee said Tuesday that the debate among a still-growing field of Democratic candidates will be broadcast live prime-time on CNN over two nights, July 30 and 31, though the debate line-ups remain unclear. 

The DNC has planned its first debate for Miami in June, also over two consecutive nights. 

The party says the face-offs for each evening will be determined at random "to provide each candidate with a fair opportunity to make his or her case to a large, national audience." 

So far, more than 10 Democrats have entered the presidential field with others expected to join this month, including former Vice President Joe Biden. 

“Detroit embodies the values and character of the Democratic Party,” DNC Chair Tom Perez said in a statement.

"It’s a city of grit and determination, a city that has gotten knocked down only to get back up stronger. With its diversity, its storied history, and its proud ties to the labor movement, Detroit is the perfect place for our party’s second debate."

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer tweeted her response: 

"The road to the White House runs right through Michigan! We’re proud to host a debate between such a diverse range of candidates," the Democratic governor wrote. 

Laura Cox, chairwoman of the Michigan Republican Party, said the debate will be "a great opportunity for Michigan voters to see just how little the Democrats have to offer."

"People want real solutions, not just partisan progressive posturing and socialist schemes," Cox added. 

President Donald Trump won the state by 10,704 votes in 2016 — the first time a Republican had carried the state since 1988. Michigan is poised again to be a battleground in 2020. 

Trump held a re-election rally in Grand Rapids last week, and two high-profile Democratic hopefuls have already visited — former U.S. Rep. Beto O'Rourke of Texas and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York.

The Democrats have set threshold criteria for participation in its 12 sanctioned debates, factoring in polling data, fundraising and staffing.  

The plan to randomly select the lineup for each night in Detroit likely stems from the DNC's desire to avoid a repeat of the "happy hour," under-card debates that aired around 5 p.m. last cycle and drew relatively few viewers, said Aaron Kall, director of debate at the University of Michigan. 

While the setup offers a prime opportunity for lower-tier candidates to break through and great more exposure, it also risks a potentially unbalanced lineup if most of the front runners end up clustered in one or the other nights, he said. 

"At the same time, if it's perfectly balanced, you're not going to get the head-to-head interaction with the favorites," Kall said. 

"I think the public would prefer to see the core group of up to a half-dozen or so of the top-tier candidates mix it up and debate with each other."

In 2016, the DNC generated controversy over its debate process with criticism over starting too late and being biased toward the front runner and eventual nominee, Hillary Clinton. 

"The DNC has moved in the other direction where they're trying to show as much fairness as possible, so they won’t have that criticism," Kall said. 

Michigan also hosted presidential debates during the last presidential election. 

Democrats held a primary presidential debate in Flint in March 2016, and Republicans held a debate in Detroit during the same month.

Michigan Democratic Party Chair Lavora Barnes called Detroit "one of America's great cities." 

“For decades, the Motor City has been a critical pillar of our nation’s economy and an icon of American innovation," Barnes said.

"And I can’t wait to welcome our amazing Democratic candidates to Michigan as we show the American people that we are truly the party of working people.”