The Republican National Committee is preparing to change its rules to require presidential candidates seeking the party’s nomination pledge not to participate in any debate sponsored by the Presidential Debates Commission.
Republican committee officials alerted the debate committee to their plans in a letter sent Thursday, a copy of which was obtained by The New York Times. If the change continues, it would be one of the most significant changes in the way presidential and vice-presidential debates have been conducted since the commission began hosting debates over 30 years ago.
The non-profit commission, founded by the two parties in 1987 to codify debates as a permanent part of presidential elections, describes itself as non-partisan. But Republicans have complained for nearly a decade that its processes favor Democrats, reflecting conservatives’ growing grudge against Washington-based institutions.
The RNC’s decision was a consequence of those long-standing complaints and came after months of discussions between the commission and party officials. According to the letter from the RNC, the chairman of the party’s interim presidential debate committee, David Bossie, began discussions last year with the debate committee’s co-chair, Frank Fahrenkopf, a former Republican official.
Republican Party Chairman Ronna McDaniel had demanded changes to the commission and the way debates were conducted, writing in a letter to the commission in June that the party and its constituents had lost confidence in the commission .
The change requiring candidates to decline to participate in committee debates is to be voted on at the RNC’s winter meeting in Salt Lake City in February. If the RNC goes ahead, it’s unclear what that would mean for future debates. But that would change the approach to be similar to what happened before the commission existed, when both parties or campaigns had to negotiate directly and agree on the terms, otherwise no debate would have. place.
Commission officials have complained privately that RNC leaders have confused the processes around the primary debates with those in the general election, which are the only ones the commission is involved in. They also complained that the commission historically deals with campaigns and not with party committees. While the eventual candidate might decide to debate, there is much more energy in the GOP base behind the abandonment of institutions than before.
“The CPD deals directly with presidential and vice-presidential candidates who qualify to participate,” the committee said in a statement. “CPD’s plans for 2024 will be based on fairness, neutrality, and a strong commitment to helping the American public educate themselves about the candidates and the issues.”
One of the main concerns of the RNC was the timing of the first debate of the 2024 electoral cycle.
In 2020, more than a million ballots were cast ahead of the first presidential debate on September 29 that year, after some states changed their voting rules due to the coronavirus pandemic and expanded both postal voting and advance voting. The party pushed the committee to hold a debate before early voting began in 2024.
Former President Donald J. Trump has criticized the commission since his first campaign, against Hillary Clinton in 2016, when he complained that one of his co-chairs, Mike McCurry, was White House press secretary under President Bill Clinton. He also complained while the debates were being held at the same time as the NFL games. Mr McCurry subsequently condemned Mr Trump’s attacks on the media as president.
Commission officials told RNC in December that one of the party’s demands in particular was unacceptable: to have non-voting representatives of the RNC or the Democratic National Committee at meetings of the commission’s board. The commission wrote that it was still studying this issue and other concerns the RNC had raised, including the choice of moderators, as part of its review ahead of the 2024 campaign cycle.
“We take the RNC’s comments and suggestions seriously and, as we have said previously, we will consider them carefully,” the committee’s letter reads. “In pursuit of our position as a non-partisan, neutral body, which neither favors nor disadvantages any party or candidate, we do not negotiate the terms or conditions of our operations with anyone. “
But in her letter on Thursday, McDaniel replied that the commission’s response appeared designed to “delay any reform until it is too late to count towards the 2024 election.”
She added that the duty of the Republican National Committee was to ensure that its candidates debate their opponents on an equal footing.
“As long as the CPD appears determined to block the significant reforms necessary to restore its credibility with the Republican Party as a fair and non-partisan actor, the RNC will take all necessary steps to ensure that future Republican presidential candidates are seen. provide this opportunity elsewhere, ”Ms. McDaniel wrote.
As a result, she added, the RNC would begin the process of changing its rules at the winter meeting “to ban future Republican candidates from participating in CPD-sponsored debates.”
It remains to be seen which new entity, if any, the Republican Party chooses to host the debates and whether Democrats will agree.
Republicans have long complained about the way the committee handles debates, dating back to the 2012 campaign, when Utah Senator Mitt Romney was the Republican nominee against incumbent Democratic President President Barack Obama. Town hall-style debate host Candy Crowley, then with CNN, checked Mr. Romney in real time about an allegation he made about Mr. Obama, causing an outcry from Conservatives.
But the intensity of frustration with the commission has increased since Mr. Trump first became the Republican nominee in 2016.
Mr Trump’s adviser Rudolph W. Giuliani argued with the committee during the second debate with Ms Clinton, when he tried to sit women who had accused Bill Clinton of sexual misconduct near the stage . Mr Trump has also complained on several occasions of moderators, insisting that former Fox News anchor Chris Wallace and NBC News reporter Kristen Welker were biased against him.
The commission changed the second presidential debate in 2020 to a virtual format, prompting Mr. Trump to withdraw from it after a controversial debate with Democratic candidate Joe Biden, for which Mr. Trump came under heavy criticism.
Mr Trump’s campaign manager at the time, Bill Stepien, wrote a scathing letter to the committee after the second debate format was changed, accusing the committee, among other things, of omitting the subject of foreign policy for trying to help Mr. Biden.