Rand Paul Says He Won’t Participate In The Next Debate If He Doesn’t Make The Main Stage

Rand Paul is throwing a bit of a temper tantrum. It's not very Presidential.

Rand Paul Campaign Rally

With the news that the criteria for the next Republican debate have been tightened to the point where it appears unlikely that he will not make the main stage for the first time since the process started, Kentucky Senator Rand Paul is saying he would refuse to participate in the undercard debate if he doesn’t qualify for the main debate:

Rand Paul will not accept being relegated to an undercard debate, the Kentucky senator and Republican presidential candidate said Wednesday.

“I won’t participate in any kind of second-tier debate,” Paul declared in a radio interview with Fox News’ host Brian Kilmeade.

Paul talked up his “first-tier” campaign, touting the size of his operation in Iowa and the millions of dollars he’s raised. “I’m not gonna let any network or anybody tell me we’re not a first- tier campaign,” Paul said. “If you tell a campaign with three weeks to go that they are in the second tier, you destroy the campaign.”

The Kentucky senator was responding to the news that only six candidates are likely to make Fox Business Network’s main debate stage in South Carolina on Thursday, Jan. 14. According to the debate criteria and current poll numbers — the main debate will feature the top six candidates based on national polling and the top five based on an average of Iowa and New Hampshire polls — Paul, Ohio Gov. John Kasich and former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina could be relegated to the happy hour debate.

This isn’t the first time that Senator Paul was in danger of missing the main debate stage, of course, and his reaction to this news this time is largely consistent with how his campaign handled things before the last debate. In the weeks before the December 15th debate, it appeared based on CNN’s pre-stated criteria that Paul would end up falling short of the cut-off needed in order to get on the main stage. This caused his campaign to start a rather public effort to pressure the network and the Republican National Committee to change their rules in order to let him on the stage in much the same way that they did when the rules were modified to allow Carly Fiorina to participate in the prime time debate in early September. As I noted at the time, though, the difference between then and now is that Fiorina’s campaign could at least make a credible case that their candidate was rising in the polls taken after the first Republican debate, Paul’s campaign could not make such a case since, at best, all that could be said about Paul’s performance is that he’d held steady in some state-level polling in Iowa. Despite that, CNN ended up letting Paul on the main stage last week, although they didn’t really offer a clear explanation for how they had reinterpreted the rules to allow that to happen.

With next month’s Fox Business Network debate, though, it seems highly unlikely that Paul will be able to make it on the stage unless he clearly qualifies based on the established criteria and right now he doesn’t. He’s not within the top six in the national polls, nor is he in the top five in either Iowa or New Hampshire, and it would take some significant movement on his part in the polls that are released between now and January 11th for that to change, and that just doesn’t seem likely. In that case, Paul would be relegated to the undercard debate along with Carly Fiorina and John Kasich, where they would join Mike Huckabee, Rick Santorum, and George Pataki.

On some level Paul’s reaction to the possibility of not making the prime time debate seems childish and churlish. It’s been clear for months now, both in terms of fundraising and poll performance, that Paul’s campaign is struggling to say the very least. He’s going from someone who was arguably a real contender for the top tier of the Republican field when he first entered the race to near the bottom of the polls notwithstanding the fact that he has gotten significant air time during all five of the Republican debates that have been held so far. In that respect, it is becoming extremely unlikely that he is going to actually be considered a contender once we start getting results from states like Iowa and New Hampshire. Given that, and given the fact that he isn’t really being excluded from the debate completely, taking this kind of stand seems designed more to be a cudgel to attack the media and rally supporters than anything else.

Here’s my advice, Senator Paul. Find a way to get your poll numbers up so that you do qualify for the main stage debate. The best possibility for that appears to be Iowa, where you aren’t that far behind Jeb Bush for fifth place. If that doesn’t work, then take your medicine and show up to the undercard debate and make the best case you can to revive your campaign. If you don’t like that idea, then you may as well just fold up the tent of the Presidential campaign and head back to Kentucky to concentrate on getting re-elected to the Senate, which doesn’t seem like it’s going to be very hard in any case. Whining about not making the main stage, and threatening to take your ball and go home because you didn’t get invited to the cool party, isn’t exactly very Presidential.

FILED UNDER: 2016 Election, Public Opinion Polls, US Politics, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. Just 'nutha ig'rant cracker says:

    “Let it go Jim Rand; it’s dead.”

  2. gVOR08 says:

    Carson, Huckabee, and Paul each approaching the brink in three straight posts. Finally, some winnowing.

  3. Gustopher says:

    It might not be his intent, but it seems much more like he is setting up goal posts for his continued campaign, rather than doing anything effective to nudge his way onto the stage.

    Probably a good move on his part.

  4. PJ says:

    After having discussed the terms for the next debate with Rand Paul, Fox Business News has now agreed to air Rand throwing a tantrum live on the debate stage floor between the undercard and the main debates. Rand Paul has agreed to wear nothing but diapers and a baby bonnet.

  5. Adam Locke says:

    To clear up any bias, I am a Paul supporter. Nevertheless, though I understand why people want it whittled down to less candidates, I agree with Paul substantively on this because the voters will cause it to be whittled down at the ballot box in short time. After Iowa and New Hampshire, the campaigns that are not polling well, lack funding, and lack in organization will be dropping out, so we’ll see the race narrowed quite a bit just a few weeks after this next debate. Consequently, the networks should not be changing it up at this point because they will be exercising too much influence over the campaign. If they leave the criteria alone, then the race will naturally get to where they are trying to artificially force it to be.