On edge: 2020 Dems face prospect of being cut from debates

MIAMI (AP) — The largest presidential field in modern Democratic politics could quickly shrink as more than half of the contenders are in real danger of failing to meet tougher requirements to participate in the fall round of debates.

Short on support and money and bound by tough party rules, once soaring politicians may soon be seen as also-rans. They include Julian Castro, who is seeking to capitalize on his strong debate performance last week; Kirsten Gillibrand, one of her party's most outspoken feminists; and Cory Booker, who rose to stardom as the energetic mayor of Newark, New Jersey.

A difficult period lies ahead as the party begins to sort through its expansive roster of candidates. The process will help Democrats zero in on someone to challenge President Donald Trump. But it is also forcing candidates to burn through cash to stay competitive and could result in a field that's older, whiter and more male — an uncomfortable development for a party that says it prizes diversity.

"There are some campaigns that are in something of a Hail Mary mode," said technology entrepreneur Andrew Yang, one of the lesser-known White House hopefuls who expressed confidence in his own chances.

Of the 20 candidates who qualified for the first round of debates in June and July, just six are sure to appear in the September-October round, when the Democratic National Committee requires participants to hit 2% in multiple polls and 130,000 individual donors. Though many campaigns are worried, DNC Chairman Tom Perez has resisted pressure to relax the requirements.

"We put our rules out for debate participation months earlier because we wanted to give people time," Perez said in an interview. "We want to be fair to everyone."

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Democratic presidential candidate former vice president Joe Biden, center, speaks during the Democratic primary debate hosted by NBC News at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Art, Thursday, June 27, 2019, in Miami, as from left, entrepreneur Andrew Yang, South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg, fSen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., listen. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)
Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Kristen Gillibrand, D-N.Y., right, and Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., gesture during the Democratic primary debate hosted by NBC News at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts, Thursday, June 27, 2019, in Miami. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)
Democratic presidential candidates former vice president Joe Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., speak at the same time during the Democratic primary debate hosted by NBC News at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts, Thursday, June 27, 2019, in Miami. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)
Democratic presidential candidate former vice president Joe Biden greets supporter after the Democratic primary debate hosted by NBC News at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Art, Thursday, June 27, 2019, in Miami. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)
Democratic presidential candidate former vice president Joe Biden, speaks during the Democratic primary debate hosted by NBC News at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Art, Thursday, June 27, 2019, in Miami. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)
Democratic presidential candidate South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg poses with an advocacy group after the Democratic primary debate hosted by NBC News at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Art, Thursday, June 27, 2019, in Miami. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)
Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., gestures, during the Democratic primary debate hosted by NBC News at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Art, Thursday, June 27, 2019, in Miami. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)
Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., left, reaches out to Sen. Kristen Gillibrand, D-N.Y., as former Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet, walks between them, during a break in the Democratic primary debate hosted by NBC News at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Art, Thursday, June 27, 2019, in Miami. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)
Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., speaks during the Democratic primary debate hosted by NBC News at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts, Thursday, June 27, 2019, in Miami. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)
Democratic presidential candidate Rep. Eric Swalwell, D-Calif., speaks during the Democratic primary debate hosted by NBC News at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Art, Thursday, June 27, 2019, in Miami. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)
Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., gestures as he speaks to the media in the spin room after the Democratic primary debate hosted by NBC News at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Art, Thursday, June 27, 2019, in Miami. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson)
Democratic presidential candidate former vice president Joe Biden speaks to Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., during a break at the Democratic primary debate hosted by NBC News at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Art, Thursday, June 27, 2019, in Miami. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)
Democratic presidential candidate former Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet, second from right, speaks during the Democratic primary debate hosted by NBC News at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Art, Thursday, June 27, 2019, in Miami, as from left, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., and Rep. Eric Swalwell, D-Calif., listen. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)
Democratic presidential candidate former Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet speaks during the Democratic primary debate hosted by NBC News at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Art, Thursday, June 27, 2019, in Miami, as Rep. Eric Swalwell, D-Calif., listens. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)
Democratic presidential candidate former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, center, speaks during the Democratic primary debate hosted by NBC News at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts, Thursday, June 27, 2019, in Miami, as author Marianne Williamson and entrepreneur Andrew Yang listen. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)
Democratic presidential candidate former vice president Joe Biden talks to South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg during a break at the Democratic primary debate hosted by NBC News at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts, Thursday, June 27, 2019, in Miami. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)
Democratic presidential candidate South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg, left, speaks as former vice president Joe Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., gesture, during the Democratic primary debate hosted by NBC News at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Art, Thursday, June 27, 2019, in Miami. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)
Democratic presidential candidate South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg, left, speaks as former vice president Joe Biden gestures, during the Democratic primary debate hosted by NBC News at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Art, Thursday, June 27, 2019, in Miami. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)
Democratic presidential candidates former Vice President Joe Biden, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., former Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet, and Rep. Eric Swalwell, D-Calif., attend during the Democratic primary debate hosted by NBC News at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts, Thursday, June 27, 2019, in Miami. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)
Democratic presidential candidate entrepreneur Andrew Yang, center, speaks during the Democratic primary debate hosted by NBC News at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Art, Thursday, June 27, 2019, in Miami, as South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg, right, and former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, left, listen. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)
Democratic presidential candidate author Marianne Williamson speaks during the Democratic primary debate hosted by NBC News at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts, Thursday, June 27, 2019, in Miami. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)
Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Kristen Gillibrand, D-N.Y., right, interrupts Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., during the Democratic primary debate hosted by NBC News at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts, Thursday, June 27, 2019, in Miami. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)
Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., gestures towards Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., during the Democratic primary debate hosted by NBC News at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Art, Thursday, June 27, 2019, in Miami. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)
Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Kristen Gillibrand, D-N,Y., speaks during the Democratic primary debate hosted by NBC News at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Art, Thursday, June 27, 2019, in Miami. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)
Democratic presidential candidate former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, right, speaks during the Democratic primary debate hosted by NBC News at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts, Thursday, June 27, 2019, in Miami, as author Marianne Williamson listens. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)
Democratic presidential candidate entrepreneur Andrew Yang speaks during the Democratic primary debate hosted by NBC News at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts, Thursday, June 27, 2019, in Miami. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)
Democratic presidential candidate former vice president Joe Biden speaks to South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg during a break in the Democratic primary debate hosted by NBC News at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts, Thursday, June 27, 2019, in Miami. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)
Democratic presidential candidate former vice president Joe Biden, speaks during the Democratic primary debate hosted by NBC News at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts, Thursday, June 27, 2019, in Miami, as South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg, left, and Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., listen. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)
Democratic presidential candidates, author Marianne Williamson, former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, entrepreneur Andrew Yang, South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg, former Vice President Joe Biden, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., former Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet, and Rep. Eric Swalwell, D-Calif., raise their hands when asked if they would provide healthcare for undocumented immigrants, during the Democratic primary debate hosted by NBC News at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts, Thursday, June 27, 2019, in Miami. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)
Democratic presidential candidate author Marianne Williamson speaks during the Democratic primary debate hosted by NBC News at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts, Thursday, June 27, 2019, in Miami, as former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper listens. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)
Democratic presidential candidates former vice president Joe Biden, left, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., right, stand on stage for a photo op before the start of the the Democratic primary debate hosted by NBC News at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts, Wednesday, June 27, 2019, in Miami. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)
Democratic presidential candidates Sen. Kristen Gillibrand, D-N.Y., left, former Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet and Rep. Eric Swalwell, D-Calif., stand on stage before a Democratic primary debate hosted by NBC News at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts, Thursday, June 27, 2019, in Miami. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)
Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., gestures towards New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, during a Democratic primary debate hosted by NBC News at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts, Wednesday, June 26, 2019, in Miami. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)
From left, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, Rep. Tim Ryan, D-Ohio, former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro, Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke, Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, D-Hawaii, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, and former Maryland Rep. John Delaney pose for a photo on stage before the start of a Democratic primary debate hosted by NBC News at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts, Wednesday, June 26, 2019, in Miami. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson)
Democratic presidential candidate former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro, third from left, answers a question, during a Democratic primary debate hosted by NBC News at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Art, Thursday, June 27, 2019, in Miami. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)
Democratic presidential candidates former Texas Rep. Beto O'Rourke and former Maryland Rep. John Delaney talk at the end of a Democratic primary debate hosted by NBC News at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts, Thursday, June 27, 2019, in Miami. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)
Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., answers questions after a Democratic primary debate hosted by NBC News at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts, Wednesday, June 26, 2019, in Miami. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson)
Democratic presidential candidate former Texas Rep. Beto O'Rourke gestures during a Democratic primary debate hosted by NBC News at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts, Wednesday, June 26, 2019, in Miami. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)
Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., second from left, hugs Rep. Tim Ryan, D-Ohio, while Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., hugs former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro at the end of a Democratic primary debate hosted by NBC News at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts, Wednesday, June 26, 2019, in Miami. In between them is New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)
Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., gestures, during a Democratic primary debate hosted by NBC News at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts, Wednesday, June 26, 2019, in Miami. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)
Democratic presidential candidates Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., and Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, D-Hawaii, shake hands at the end of a Democratic primary debate hosted by NBC News at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts, Wednesday, June 26, 2019, in Miami. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)
Democratic presidential candidate former Maryland Rep. John Delaney speaks during a Democratic primary debate hosted by NBC News at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts, Wednesday, June 26, 2019, in Miami. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)
Democratic presidential candidates former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke and Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., talk during break at a Democratic primary debate hosted by NBC News at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts, Wednesday, June 26, 2019, in Miami. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)
Democratic presidential candidate Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, D-Hawaii, gestures during a Democratic primary debate hosted by NBC News at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts, Wednesday, June 26, 2019, in Miami. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)
Democratic presidential candidate former Texas Rep. Beto O'Rourke speaks during a Democratic primary debate hosted by NBC News at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts, Wednesday, June 26, 2019, in Miami. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)
Democratic presidential candidate Rep. Tim Ryan, D-Ohio, gestures during a Democratic primary debate hosted by NBC News at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts, Wednesday, June 26, 2019, in Miami. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)
Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., speaks during the Democratic primary debate hosted by NBC News at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Art, Wednesday, June 26, 2019, in Miami. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)
Democratic presidential candidates Rep. Tim Ryan, D-Ohio, former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro, speak during a Democratic primary debate hosted by NBC News at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts, Wednesday, June 26, 2019, in Miami. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)
Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., gestures during the Democratic primary debate hosted by NBC News at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Art, Wednesday, June 26, 2019, in Miami, as Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., listens. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)
Democratic presidential candidate New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio speaks during he Democratic primary debate hosted by NBC News at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Art, Wednesday, June 26, 2019, in Miami, as Rep. Tim Ryan, D-Ohio, listens. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)
Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., gestures as former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro listens, during s Democratic primary debate hosted by NBC News at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Art, Wednesday, June 26, 2019, in Miami. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)
Members of the audience react during a Democratic primary debate hosted by NBC News at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts, Wednesday, June 26, 2019, in Miami. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)
Democratic presidential candidate former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro speaks during a Democratic primary debate hosted by NBC News at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Art, Wednesday, June 26, 2019, in Miami. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)
Democratic presidential candidate Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, D-Hawaii, answers a question during a Democratic primary debate hosted by NBC News at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Art, Wednesday, June 26, 2019, in Miami. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)
Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., speaks during a Democratic primary debate hosted by NBC News at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Art, Wednesday, June 26, 2019, in Miami. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)
Democratic presidential candidate Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, center, speaks during a Democratic primary debate hosted by NBC News at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Art, Wednesday, June 26, 2019, in Miami, as Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., and former Texas Rep. Beto O'Rourke listen. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)
Democratic presidential candidates Washington Gov. Jay Inslee , left and former Maryland Rep. John Delaney answer a question at the same time during a Democratic primary debate hosted by NBC News at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts, Wednesday, June 26, 2019, in Miami. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)
Democratic presidential candidate former Texas Rep. Beto O'Rourke, center, answers a question, during a Democratic primary debate hosted by NBC News at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Art, Wednesday, June 26, 2019, in Miam, as from left, Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., and Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, Hawaii, listen. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)
Democratic presidential candidate former Housing Secretary Julian Castro, center, speaks at the Democratic primary debate hosted by NBC News at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts, Wednesday, June 26, 2019, in Miami, as Rep. Tim Ryan, D-Ohio, and Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., listen. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)
Democratic presidential candidates, from left, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, Rep. Tim Ryan, D-Ohio, former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro, Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke, Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, D-Hawaii, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, and former Maryland Rep. John Delaney listen before the start of a Democratic primary debate hosted by NBC News at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts, Wednesday, June 26, 2019, in Miami. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)
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There's still time for struggling candidates to recover. All 20 contenders who appeared on the debate stage last week will return for the late July debates. And, for now, only a fraction of voters are paying close attention to the unfolding Democratic contest.

But failing to qualify for the September-October debates could be lethal to any candidate, regardless of whether they formally drop out of the race.

Currently, the only locks for the fall debates are former Vice President Joe Biden, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, California Sen. Kamala Harris and South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg. Former Texas Rep. Beto O'Rourke is likely to qualify, but after an underwhelming debate performance last week, even he is not guaranteed to make the polling threshold. Only polls taken between June 28 and Aug. 28 will count.

The governors in the contest and no less than nine current or former members of Congress have yet to qualify. The bubble candidates include Booker, the New Jersey senator and the only black man in the race; and Castro, the only White House hopeful of Hispanic heritage. Four of the six female contenders — including Sens. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota and Gillibrand of New York — have yet to meet the donor or polling thresholds.

The do-or-die nature of making the debates has forced many second-tier candidates to dump money into online advertising at an unprecedented rate to generate new donors. Some strategists concede campaigns are spending upward of $40 on average for every email address of a prospective small-dollar donor, an unsustainable ratio that has forced cutbacks on hiring, candidate travel and organizing support on the ground in key states.

The dynamic has some larger donors worried that their money is being used to build out the small-donor network instead of a traditional campaign operation

"No one wants to give anyone money to buy donors," said Robert Wolf, a former economic adviser to Obama.

The donor requirements have forced candidates to prioritize spending on online ads targeting areas with a large number of possible donors, rather than communicating with potential supporters in the states that matter most in the primary. The overwhelming majority of Facebook ads target Democratic fundraising hubs or the candidates' home states, where they are best known. California tops the list, followed by New York, Texas, Florida and Washington state.

Candidates spent about $2.8 million on debate-themed ads

And the message behind many online ads has been focused on qualifying for debates — not "persuasion" ads that highlight Democrats' plans or Trump's weaknesses.

Online ads aimed at boosting the number of small-dollar donors dominated digital spending between the end of March and late June, according to an Associated Press analysis of fundraising records and online ad data compiled by the Democratic digital firm Bully Pulpit Interactive. Candidates spent more money — about $2.8 million — during that time on debate-themed ads than on any other subject, including health care, climate change, the economy and Trump, the data shows.

For some of the lesser-known candidates, the spending soaked up a major chunk of their early fundraising haul.

The $416,000 that Castro spent on debate-themed social media and internet ads amounted to about 37% of what he raised during the year's first quarter. Washington Gov. Jay Inslee spent about 17% of the money he's reported raising since getting in the race, according to the AP's analysis.

The candidates on the edge of being cut are expressing growing alarm to their supporters

Booker noted in a weekend fundraising message that he's more than 30,000 donors away from the threshold. His campaign insists he will hit polling and fundraising marks, but his allies are concerned by what they see as an inherent bias among online donors who traditionally skew white.

Steve Phillips, an African American donor, activist and civil rights lawyer, said the fundraising requirements are unfair to black voters.

"The pool of people who have discretionary income to be donors is overwhelmingly, if not disproportionately, white," said Phillips, whose Dream United super PAC supports Booker.

Since the debate, Castro's campaign peppered social media with donation requests and sold T-shirts featuring one of his closing lines: "Adios Trump." In the two days immediately after the debate, they blasted out at least 10 emails asking for money to help qualify for the next round.

His campaign said it had seen a "four-digit percentage spike" in fundraising on Wednesday night and Castro himself said it was "safe to say ... we probably had our best fundraising night of the campaign."

Notably, his campaign did not say he had qualified for the fall debates.

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