The RNC Said This Time Would Be Different, Yet The First Two Debates Have Conservatives Frustrated And Disappointed

(Photo by KAMIL KRZACZYNSKI/AFP via Getty Images)

Reagan Reese White House Correspondent
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The aftermath of the second GOP presidential debate on Sept. 27 could not have been clearer: in near unanimity, dejected conservative personalities with huge followings denounced the questions as “offensively stupid,” baked in “liberal framing,” and used words like “inappropriate,” “boring,” and straight up “disappointing” to describe the moderators’ performance.

Even Fox News’s own post-debate analysts spent the immediate minutes after either discussing how the debate could have been better or straight-up imagining a different debate entirely.

“I think after watching this tonight, the debate I want to see before your [Sean Hannity] debate that you’re going to host between, of course, DeSantis and Newsom, is DeSantis and Nikki Haley,” Fox News host Laura Ingraham said just minutes after the debate concluded. “A debate between those two, maybe without a moderator, unless it’s you, I think would be fascinating for the American people.” (RELATED: EXCLUSIVE: Trump Rips RNC, Says They Have To Stop Debates)

The culprit, according to a myriad of mainstream conservative commentators, was none other than the debate’s organizer, the Republican National Committee (RNC). For its part, the RNC and the chairman of its Temporary Committee on Presidential Debates, David Bossie, had spent 18 months promising that this time things would be different.

During a January 2022 interview with Daily Caller editorial director and WMALDC radio host Vince Coglianese, Bossie claimed that under his watch primary debates would be used to build “conservative media up” and wouldn’t go to the “same old” outlets. In reality, the first two debates were given to Fox News and Fox Business, with additional involvement from Young America’s Foundation (YAF), the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Univision. (RELATED: Second GOP Primary Debate Drew Historically Low Ratings Without Trump)

The failure to include conservative media outlets aside from Fox in the first two debates has some on the right feeling snubbed.

“So obviously we don’t know what it is going to be, you can commit to whatever you want but I am thinking as you say that that means we could see for instance a Daily Wire debate or a Daily Caller, or Breitbart, or National Review, go down the list… ” Coglianese said to Bossie.

“All of the above. All of those names that you just said and many, many others. And you are going to see moderators that the American people want to see,” Bossie responded. “Look I am just spitballing here because we have not done anything but wouldn’t the American people, the Republican primary voters want to see a debate where, I don’t know Mark Levin and Dan Bongino got to ask questions? Right? Wouldn’t that be interesting and entertaining all at the same time?”

Far from the likes of conservative firebrands Levin and Bongino, the moderators of the second GOP debate were Univision anchor Ilia Calderón, Fox Business host Stuart Varney and Fox News host Dana Perino, who, earlier in September, shared the stage with Hillary Clinton, appearing to praise the former Secretary of State as “amazing.”

Critics lambasted the questions from the Univision host, which touched on racism and discrimination against LGBT people, as a waste of time while decrying the lack of focus on issues that truly matter to Republican voters.

“When I talked to a couple RNC members this week about Univision they said that they had not been aware of it,” one former party official, who was granted anonymity to speak freely, told the Daily Caller.

The former party official noted that there are “only 168 members in the RNC,” wondering out loud how the partnership could not have been communicated to the entire staff.

“This is not a general election. This is a primary. What audience was it helping serve? None. I mean, that was political malpractice,” the former party official continued.

Prominent conservative commentator Megyn Kelly summed the debate up with one question about an hour into the programming: “Is this an MSNBC debate?”

Bossie did not respond to the Daily Caller’s multiple requests for comment regarding the future of the debates as well as the scrutiny the moderators faced. (Disclosure: Daily Caller’s sister nonprofit The Daily Caller News Foundation was among those under RNC’s consideration for hosting or sponsoring a debate.)

The first GOP Presidential debate was aired exclusively on Fox News and the Fox Business Network while being moderated by the outlet’s very own Bret Baier and Martha MacCallum in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. The RNC partnered with Rumble to stream the debate online and the sponsor of the event was YAF, a conservative youth organization.

While YAF could be considered a step in the right direction towards Bossie’s vision, Scott Walker, president of the organization, expressed frustration with the way the partnership played out during a recent interview with Coglianese.

Coglianese took issue with the only question from a YAF student that Fox chose to air.

“He asked a question about climate change. ‘What are the Republican candidates doing to elevate young voters’ concerns about climate change?’ And I was like ‘what is this question? Why is this question being asked at a Republican primary?’” Coglianese asked Walker. “Do you have any sense of how that happened?”

“We were the partner in the first debate. [Fox came] to one of our conferences, they video tape all of these kids. They do all these background checks [inaudible],” Walker said, adding that there were several students with potential questions that would have better catered to Republican voters.

“And we find out later he said, [Fox News] asked him to ask that question because even Fox buys into this myth that now it’s the number one issue, even though before the actual debate we showed them poll of college and high school voters that shows the number one issue is not climate change, it is actually the economy. Even Fox doesn’t get it,” Walker said.

(From L) Former Governor from South Carolina and UN ambassador Nikki Haley, US Senator from South Carolina Tim Scott and North Dakota Governor Doug Burgum arrive on stage for the first Republican Presidential primary debate at the Fiserv Forum in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, on August 23, 2023. (Photo by Brendan SMIALOWSKI / AFP) (Photo by BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP via Getty Images)

(From L) Former Governor from South Carolina and UN ambassador Nikki Haley, US Senator from South Carolina Tim Scott and North Dakota Governor Doug Burgum arrive on stage for the first Republican Presidential primary debate at the Fiserv Forum in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, on August 23, 2023. (Photo by BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP via Getty Images)

As for the RNC’s second debate last week in California, the dominant narrative in the aftermath didn’t pertain to a breakout candidate performance or quality substantive back-and-forth, but the poor performance of the moderators. The broadcasters for the second debate were exactly the same as the first, with the addition of Univision as a Spanish-language partner.

“What is the actual point of these debates, and are they actually designed to help the GOP, or just do favors for its partisan enemies?” Ben Domench, Fox News contributor and the Spectator’s editor-at-large, wrote. “How is the RNC still screwing this up?”

Calderón, whose 2020 memoir is titled “My Time to Speak: Reclaiming Ancestry and Confronting Race,” asked Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis about his state’s black history curriculum, claiming that “many are still hurt” by what it teaches while she repeated a left-wing characterization of its contents. The moderator from the Spanish-language network additionally claimed that American citizens carry out most smuggling attempts across the border when discussing fentanyl, and asked former Vice President Mike Pence, who is known for emphasizing his strong Christian faith, how he would protect the LGBTQ community from discrimination and hate crimes.

Calderón’s line of questioning had some prominent conservative media figures wondering why the partnership was ever allowed.

While the hosts and moderators of the third GOP Presidential debate have not been confirmed, CNN reported that NBC News and Salem Media are in talks to host the program in Miami, Florida.

“The goal of these debates is to inform Republican primary voters and caucus-goers. There is no one at NBC or CNN or any of these other legacy left-wing outlets that has anything of interest in helping achieve that goal,” Sean Spicer, host of the Sean Spicer podcast and former chairman for the RNC’s Temporary Committee on Presidential Debates, told the Daily Caller. “And for the RNC to be complicit in helping them is a disservice to our grassroots voters and activists. At the end of the day, there’s a level of accountability.”

“We’re still early in the process,” Spicer told the Daily Caller. “But at some point, I think there’s going to be a reckoning and needed accountability if [the RNC] doesn’t follow through. Though there’s still time.”

The confusion — and irritation — comes after Bossie had seemed adamant during his 2022 interview with Coglianese on including rising conservative outlets outside of the mainstream media.

“You named some great organizations,” Bossie continued. “This is going to be a wide-open opportunity for them to really move their organization forward and I look at this very seriously as a cycle to build conservative media up. To build the entire movement of conservative media and raise it up instead of giving the same old media outlets opportunities.”

Though there are several more debates to come — the RNC held 11 during its last competitive primary in 2016, according to Ballotpedia —  non-traditional outlets that may have once been encouraged by Bossie’s promises have a dim view of the prospects.

Several outlets outside of major corporate media that had been in communication with the RNC about potentially being involved in hosting debates spoke to the Daily Caller about the application process. Some were granted anonymity so they could speak candidly about their exchanges.

“We had hoped to be one of the partners and we had made a presentation to them,” one outlet told the Daily Caller. “We have not heard anything and we’re kind of surprised we haven’t heard either a yes or a no.”

“At this point, we remain interested and would certainly entertain the idea if the RNC came to us and said we want you to co-sponsor a debate, but I feel like each passing day, my hopes get a little bit lower,” a decision-maker at another outlet told the Daily Caller.

A spokesperson for Newsmax, a conservative cable TV network and Fox News competitor, expressed irritation with changing standards involved in the RNC’s debate application process.

“We have been in discussions with the RNC about us hosting a debate, but it has been difficult because of the many unusual and changing demands they keep making on Newsmax,” a spokesperson for the station told the Daily Caller. “The RNC seems intent on ensuring that media hostile to President Trump are hosting.”

Charles Herring, the owner of One America News Network, a former cable station now being streamed on KlowdTV and other platforms, told the Daily Caller that the station has not been in communication with the RNC about hosting a debate.

“One America News would be pleased to sponsor and moderate debates,” Herring told the Daily Caller. “I also believe it would be beneficial to the candidates and our democracy to have the live debates available to all outlets to air, not just a single network.”

The Daily Caller emailed, texted and called a spokesperson for the RNC multiple times for a comment regarding the future of the GOP Presidential debates as well as backlash to the moderators’ questions, but did not receive a response.

“I’ve heard a lot of feedback from our supporters, and they are very disappointed,” an outlet that had been in touch with the RNC about hosting a debate told the Daily Caller. “You know, I’ve had quite a few say, I’m not going to watch the next one.”