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Commission on Presidential Debates cancels Texas State University plans

Weeks after President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump publicly criticized the Commission on Presidential Debates and opted instead to participate in media-produced forums, the organization officially canceled their planned general election debates, including one at Texas State University.

The university was to be the first in Texas to host a presidential debate and planned to spend $5 million to make the event possible.

“In light of the May 15, 2024 letter from Jen O'Malley Dillon, campaign manager of the Biden-Harris campaign, in which the Biden-Harris campaign informs the commission that President Biden will not be willing to debate under the auspices of the commission during the 2024 campaign, it is unfair to require the four campuses to continue preparing for their debates as they have been doing since their selection in November 2023,” commission co-chairs Antonia Hernández and Frank Fahrenkopf said in a statement.

“We are grateful to the campuses and regret this decision,” they said. “We are dismayed that students at the four campuses will not have the opportunity to participate in these historic voter education forums.”

After Biden and Trump, the likely presidential candidates, agreed to take turns participating in debates, Texas State University at San Marcos stopped planning and spending funds to organize their event “in order to be good stewards of public funds and resources,” the university said in a statement.

Documents obtained by the American-Statesman documenting the university's agreement and bid to host a debate show that the university paid the commission a $2.7 million venue fee to cover production costs. According to the agreement, in the event of a cancellation, the commission agrees to “refund any monies or contributions not expended, expended or pledged prior to the cancellation.”

It is not yet publicly known what amount of the Texas State site fee the Commission has spent or what stage of the reimbursement process the parties are in.

More: Texas State was supposed to host the first presidential debate. How Biden and Trump thwarted that plan.

“While this official news is disappointing, we understand CPD's position,” Texas State President Kelly Damphousse said in a statement. “As the only university in Texas to have produced a U.S. president, we were excited to host the first presidential debate in our great state. We are also proud to be the only Hispanic-serving institution selected to host a presidential debate.”

Why were the Commission's forums for presidential debates cancelled?

In a rare presidential face-off, both the Biden and Trump campaigns raised complaints against the commission dating back to the 2020 election – the Biden campaign accused the nonprofit of repeatedly allowing Trump to interrupt Biden, contrary to its rules, and the Republican National Committee accused the organization of bias and withdrew in 2022. Both also said the debates, which were supposed to take place after early voting began in some states, were coming too late.

Last month, the candidates said they would instead participate in debates hosted by CNN and ABC. The CNN debate is Thursday and ABC is hosting its event on Sept. 10. The Texas State debate was scheduled for Sept. 16.

The commission, a nonpartisan organization founded in 1987 that hosts the presidential debates, said in May that the Texas State debate would be the “earliest televised election debate ever.” In a statement Monday announcing the cancellation, it said the commission has hosted 33 debates on college campuses.

There is no obligation for candidates to participate in debates sponsored by the Commission, but the organization has successfully organized debates in every presidential election since 1988.

“The reason for creating the CPD remains compelling: a neutral organization with no other role during the general election is well positioned to offer formats that focus on the candidate and the issues that matter most to the American people,” Hernández and Fahrenkopf's statement continued.

More: An honor and an expense: How Texas State University secured a spot in the US presidential debate

The commission's co-chairs said the organization is willing to hold the debates if the campaigns reconsider their positions, and Damphousse said Texas State will continue to promote political knowledge among students.

“We will continue to support our students and the entire university community in learning about democracy, engaging in civilized discussions and participating in the electoral process during the upcoming election cycle,” Damphousse said.

Anna Harden

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