Union Leader, MSNBC to hold unsanctioned Democratic debate before New Hampshire primary

The new debate is scheduled for Thursday, February 4.

Martin O'Malley, Hillary Clinton, and Bernie Sanders take the stage for the most recent Democratic presidential debate at the Gaillard Center in Charleston, South Carolina. Travis Dove / The New York Times

The New Hampshire Union Leader and MSNBC will co-host a newly announced, unsanctioned Democratic presidential primary debate February 4 — five days before Granite Staters vote in the nation’s first primary.

The announcement Tuesday afternoon comes after efforts by New Hampshire legislators and activists, including supporters of all three Democratic candidates, to add one more debate before the February 9 primary.

The Thursday night debate will be moderated by Meet the Press host Chuck Todd and MSNBC anchor Rachel Maddow.

The Democratic National Committee announced in August it would sponsor six primary debates and would penalize candidates who participate in unsanctioned debates. Republican candidates, on the other hand, will participate in up to 12 debates.

“We were always concerned that this would have been the first time in 32 years without a Democratic debate before the New Hampshire primary,’’ Union Leader publisher Joe McQuaid said in the announcement Tuesday. “We are glad to partner with MSNBC to ensure Granite Staters have the information they need to make a critical decision on Feb. 9.’’

Union Leader executive editor Trent Spiner told Boston.com on Tuesday that the paper had “been in touch with all of the campaigns.’’

Bernie Sanders and Martin O’Malley first called for more debates last summer, criticizing the DNC for limiting debates in order to, in their view, help Hillary Clinton’s campaign.

O’Malley was the first candidate Tuesday to accept the invitation to the new debate.

“Today is a victory for the voters of the Granite State that came together and joined our call to push for an additional debate,’’ O’Malley’s deputy New Hampshire director, Matt Sheaff, told Boston.com. “We look forward to participating in it.’’


A few hours later, Clinton campaign spokeswoman Jennifer Palmieri said in a statement that “Clinton would be happy to participate in a debate in New Hampshire if the other candidates agree, which would allow the DNC to sanction the debate.’’

Sanders campaign spokesman Michael Briggs told Boston.com that the campaign “will be working with the DNC and the other campaigns to schedule additional debates.’’

Jeff Weaver, Sanders’ campaign manager, told The New York Times his candidate, who polls show ahead in New Hampshire, would not participate in the debate if the DNC did not sanction it. Per the Times report Tuesday night:

The Democratic National Committee has “said this will be an unsanctioned debate, so we would not want to jeopardize our ability to participate in future debates,’’ Mr. Weaver said.

He added that if the Democratic National Committee did sanction the debate, the campaign’s stance would be different.

DNC Chair Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, who has steadfastly stood by the party’s debate schedule, said in a statement Tuesday that the national committee does not intend on sanctioning any new debates before the Iowa caucus and New Hampshire primary.

“We have no plans to sanction any further debates before the upcoming First in the Nation caucuses and primary, but will reconvene with our campaigns after those two contests to review our schedule. Our three major candidates are already scheduled to appear on the same stage next week for the New Hampshire Democratic Party dinner on February 5th.’’

According to the new rule instituted by the DNC this election cycle, any candidate that participates in a debate not sanctioned by the party will be banned from future party-sanctioned debates.

McQuaid told Politico he doubts the party would actually follow through on the rule if all three candidates accept the invitation to the Union Leader/MSNBC debate.

“After Iowa I think everything is going to be changed and up in the air and I can’t imagine that the DNC, no matter who’s camp they may be in would prevent this from happening,’’ he said. “New Hampshire is going to be, I think more decisive than usual on the Democratic side.’’


The next sanctioned Democratic debate is scheduled for February 11, after the Iowa caucus and New Hampshire primary. Of the four debates on the Democratic side, three (including New Hampshire’s December 19 debate) were held on weekend nights. The Republican debates have consistently seen higher viewership compared to the Democratic debates.

Aides for the Clinton campaign recently told the Times they now regret not pushing for more debates, in which they say the former secretary of state excels.

The new debate also gives the Union Leader another chance to be involved in the process. The state’s largest newspaper was dropped as a sponsor of the Republican debate scheduled February 6 in Manchester, New Hampshire, following its repeated, prominent criticisms of GOP candidate Donald Trump.

On Twitter, McQuaid said the new Democratic debate “should make for a busy week before the Primary.’’

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