Lionel Messi and Gift Cards: GOP Presidential Candidates Are Desperate to Make the Debate Stage

Doug Burgum needed donors more than the actual donations. So for the last couple weeks, the North Dakota governor’s presidential campaign started offering $20 gift cards—or as Burgum calls them, “Biden economic relief cards”—to the first 50,000 people who donated $1 to his fledgling campaign. Fully paid out, the gambit would cost the campaign a million dollars, but it also achieved its goal: On Wednesday, the North Dakota governor announced that his campaign surpassed the donor threshold to make it on the debate stage in the GOP presidential primary. ​​“We passed the 40,000 mark today. We’ve got more gift cards to give out. We’re going to keep on going,” Burgum said in an interview with CNN, adding that his campaign has received donations from individuals in all 50 states.

As for criticism that he is paying to play, Burgum turned to some campaign spin: “I think that’s funny actually,” he said. “This is about a smart strategy, it’s about an entrepreneur with a business attitude.”

Burgum is not the only Republican presidential candidate desperate for individual donors. As Donald Trump dominates poll after poll of likely Republican voters in the presidential primary, little-known contenders are scrambling to get on the Fox News–hosted debate stage next month to make their mark. In order to make the cut, the candidates are put through the Republican National Committee’s campaigning tests: They need to hit specific polling numbers (candidates need to hit at least 1% support in three national polls, or 1% in two national polls and 1% in an early-state poll from two separate states: either Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, or South Carolina), and bring in 40,000 unique donors total, as well as 200 unique donors each in at least 20 states.

For just a $1 donation to his campaign, Miami mayor Francis Suarez offered supporters the chance to enter a raffle to attend Lionel Messi’s first soccer game with Inter Miami. Similarly, Perry Johnson—a Republican businessman and failed Michigan gubernatorial candidate—offered a T-shirt emblazoned with a slogan supportive of Tucker Carlson in exchange for a $1 donation to his campaign, per Politico. Vivek Ramaswamy, whose campaign has said it hit the donor threshold, launched the “Vivek’s Kitchen Cabinet,” in which the biotech entrepreneur offered supporters who help raise campaign funds 10% of the money they bring in—a trick critics have said resembles a multi-level marketing scheme. “I found out that most professional political fundraisers get a cut of the money they raise,” Ramaswamy told Politico in explanation of his strategy. “Why should they monopolize political fundraising? They shouldn’t.”

Forcing candidates to meet a donor threshold is not a novel idea; the Democratic Party imposed a similar standard in 2020, which initially locked out billionaire Michael Bloomberg, among other candidates, from early debates before the qualifying standard was ultimately dropped. But Republican presidential hopefuls certainly seem to be pushing the boundaries of legal tactics.

Brendan Fischer, the executive director of political watchdog group Documented, explains that these ploys to get grassroots donors could set a “bad precedent, because campaign funds are not supposed to be used as a piggy bank to hand out financial benefits to friends and supporters.” Federal campaign laws prohibit straw donors—in other words, it’s illegal to reimburse someone for making campaign donations. Some legal experts question whether this is what these Republicans are essentially doing: “Giving a donor a $20 gift card for donating seems a bit like that,” Michael S. Kang, a professor at Northwestern University’s Pritzker School of Law, told NPR. If not illegal, it seems at the very least a bit unethical. Fischer echoed the sentiment. Burgum’s gift card scheme “raises a number of potential legal issues,” he says. “Burgum’s campaign should likely have asked the FTC for an advisory opinion before proceeding—questions about whether it might violate the straw donor ban or whether it might violate the personal use ban.” (Vanity Fair has reached out to Burgum’s campaign for comment.)

So far, Trump, Ron DeSantis, Nikki Haley, Chris Christie, Tim Scott, and Ramaswamy are on track to qualify for the debates, based upon their standing in recent polls and donations, as reported by Politico. But other pretty notable names have not. Reportedly among them is former vice president Mike Pence. In an interview with Fox News on Tuesday morning, Pence addressed that his campaign was still short on donors—and also seemed to take a shot at his opponents adopting, shall we say, interesting tactics to entice donors. “From a polling standpoint, we’ll easily qualify. But getting 40,000 donors in just a matter of a few short weeks is a bit of a challenge,” he said. “We’re not offering gift cards, we’re not offering kickbacks, we’re not offering tickets to soccer games, we’re just traveling.”

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