After a second debate widely panned as “disappointing” by conservative viewers and pundits, strategists are questioning whether the Republican National Committee’s (RNC) third presidential primary debate hosted by NBC serves much of a purpose at all.
The RNC gave its first two debates to Fox News and Fox Business, the second of which was heavily criticized for not focusing on the issues Republican primary voters care about. Despite that criticism, the RNC gave its third debate on Nov. 8 to NBC, failing to meet earlier promises to prioritize up-and-coming conservative, independent media for coverage. Salem Radio Network and the Republican Jewish Coalition, a national organization that works to unite the Jewish community with Republican lawmakers, are partners for the third debate.
Viewers took particular umbrage with questions in the second debate that focused on racism and discrimination against LGBT communities, which came primarily from Univision moderator Ilia Calderón. With the decision to choose NBC as the third debate host, GOP strategists told the Daily Caller they expect the contest to be yet another letdown for Republican voters and embarrassing for candidates.
“[Kristen] Welker and Lester Holt and NBC as a whole are going to appease their base,” Sean Spicer, host of the Sean Spicer podcast and former chairman for the RNC’s Temporary Committee on Presidential Debates told the Daily Caller. “I don’t blame them for the left-wing questions. It’s the RNC that gave them the platform to do this. NBC is going to do what NBC does and Univision is going to do what Univision does. It’s not their fault that the RNC chose them to just to embarrass our candidates. It’s the RNC’s fault.”
The RNC’s current chairman of its Temporary Committee on Presidential Debates, David Bossie, promised in 2022 that under his leadership, the debates wouldn’t be hosted by the “same old” outlets and that they would instead be used to raise up conservative media. Bossie imagined during the interview the debates being hosted by conservative firebrands such as Mark Levin and Dan Bongino. (RELATED: EXCLUSIVE: Trump Rips RNC, Says They Have To Stop Debates)
Instead, NBC’s Lester Holt and Kristen Welker will moderate debate number three alongside Salem Radio Network’s Hugh Hewitt, a longtime fixture of conservative talk radio.
“These two people [Holt and Welker] are not Republican voters. They’re not undecided voters. They’re not moderate voters. They’re not people who occasionally vote for Republicans. These are hardcore Democrat voters. They’ve been their whole life,” Mike McKenna, GOP consultant and MWR Strategies president, told the Daily Caller. “So yeah, they’re gonna look at drilling Republicans. It’s silly, it’s ridiculous. And you know what? The guy who made it silly and ridiculous, Ronna McDaniel and Dave Bossie. They’re the architects of this. You want to blame somebody? Blame those two chuckleheads.”
McKenna added that he would be “shocked” if Holt and Welker didn’t ask about “defending democracy and abortion,” noting that the topics have become main pillars of the Democratic party agenda.
We are honored and humbled to be asked to partner with @GOP for this historic and important Presidential Debate. Thank you @GOPChairwoman for your friendship and commitment to #Israel and the Jewish community. https://t.co/dzFyr7dEa1
— Matt Brooks (@mbrooksrjc) October 16, 2023
Holt has moderated a presidential debate in the past two elections, though his 2016 performance came under fire. Throughout the debate, Holt tried to fact-check former President Donald Trump. Trump pushed back on Holt’s line of questioning during the debate, criticizing the NBC host for not asking a single question about Hillary Clinton’s missing emails or her role in the Benghazi Embassy attack.
Prior to Welker hosting her first presidential debate in 2020, it was reported by the New York Post that her family previously donated nearly $20,000 to former President Barack Obama and $3,300 to then-candidate Joe Biden’s campaign. The Welker family, though not the moderator herself, reportedly made contributions and supported both Clinton and the Democratic National Committee (DNC).
As of Oct. 28, four Republican presidential candidates had qualified for the third debate and will face questions from Holt, Welker and Hewitt: Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, conservative businessman Vivek Ramaswamy and former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.
Republican South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott has qualified as well for the third debate, his campaign team told the Hill.
Is the RNC really going forward with an NBC sponsored debate?
Horrible idea. pic.twitter.com/rh3mBel7C3
— Restoration of America (@Restoration_roa) October 30, 2023
“There’s no way that these NBC anchors can be fair, they simply don’t understand what most Americans much less most Republican voters care about. It’s a foreign concept to them,” Mark R. Weaver, a GOP consultant, told the Daily Caller. “It would be like most of us in America trying to follow a debate in Kazakhstan. We just couldn’t, even if it were translated into our language, we wouldn’t understand the content.”
Hewitt has pushed back against criticism of the RNC for choosing NBC to host the debate, and the decision to have Holt and Welker moderate the debates. An RNC spokesperson added that the organization only chooses the host, not the moderators.
Criticism of Bossie and RNC Chairman Ronna McDaniel is “deeply misinformed,” Hewitt tweeted.
“The RNC process was thorough and the focus on GOP primary and caucus electorate a constant theme in the discussions about partners for [Salem Media Group],” Hewitt tweeted. “Lester and Kristen are thorough professionals as is the entire [NBC] team. It will be a serious debate focused on GOP voters”
While some criticized the decision to allow NBC to host the debate, an RNC spokesperson noted to the Daily Caller that they are the first political organization or committee to partner with a Jewish organization for a debate. The decision to partner with the Republican Jewish Coalition, the spokesperson told the Daily Caller, has received lots of positive feedback.
Opposition from a few on right to a moderators panel of @LesterHoltNBC @kwelkernbc and me is ill-informed about how important it is to have the reach of @NBC or other legacy media outlets. To win in ‘24 it’s essential to reach everyone. 1 https://t.co/bFwCQe83n6
— Hugh Hewitt (@hughhewitt) October 28, 2023
Conservative outlets outside of mainstream media previously expressed their frustration to the Daily Caller over their talks with the RNC about hosting a debate. (Disclosure: Daily Caller’s sister nonprofit The Daily Caller News Foundation was among those under RNC’s consideration for hosting or sponsoring a debate.)
While Nov. 8 marks the third presidential primary debate, there are several more debates to come. The RNC held 11 during its last competitive primary in 2016, according to Ballotpedia.
“I think the question no one ever stops to ask is who are these debates for? Are they for the media? Are they for a sliver of Twitter or x? Are they for donors? Who are these debates for? I thought they were for the voters,” Scott Jennings, a longtime GOP adviser in Kentucky and veteran of numerous campaigns, told the Daily Caller.