‘Continually Fail’: GOP To End Debate Season In Disney’s Arms

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Reagan Reese White House Correspondent
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The once-lofty dreams for GOP primary debates have ultimately ended with the party’s retreat into the arms of corporate media companies that the electorate views as inherently hostile, and no decision maker, from the campaigns themselves to the Republican National Committee (RNC), wants to take credit.

The Daily Caller talked to the RNC, the DeSantis campaign, the Ramaswamy campaign and CNN, and reached out to the Haley campaign. No one can explain how RNC Temporary Committee on Presidential Debates David Bossie’s 2022 promise to center debates around independent and conservative media ended up with the RNC in full retreat and candidates flocking to CNN and Disney-owned ABC on the eve of the first primary states.

Meanwhile, voters and the RNC’s own state representatives have thrown up their hands in collective disgust.

“At first I was applauding the RNC for removing us from the center-left Commission on Presidential Debates,” Tyler Bowyer, an Arizona national committeeman, told the Daily Caller. “But now by removing ourselves altogether from [the debates], that’s even worse. That’s left of the Commission on Presidential Debates, by giving control completely to CNN, or any other major media. Now you’ve opened the floodgates for anybody that wants to come in and attack the Republican candidates, they’re able to get away with that.”

Bossie told Daily Caller Editorial Director Vince Coglianese in 2022 that the RNC wanted to give debates to outlets like the Daily Wire or Breitbart with firebrands such as Mark Levin and Dan Bongino appearing as moderators. Instead, the RNC faced backlash for giving broadcast rights for its first debates to Fox News, Fox Business and NBC. Conservative organizations like the Republican Jewish Coalition, Salem Radio Network and Young America’s Foundation were involved as partners in the debates, but dissatisfaction remained amongst many conservatives until the latest contest, moderated by Megyn Kelly and Washington Free Beacon editor-in-chief Eliana Johnson. (RELATED: Barring A Few Fiery Moments, RNC’s Third ‘Debate’ Looked More Like A TED Talk)

Now, the RNC has paused its involvement in debates altogether, and is attempting to wash its hands of responsibility for the upcoming CNN and ABC contests. After nearly two years of touting its new and improved debate process, and exerting meticulous control over every step of it, the RNC has packed it in.

“The candidates all show up and get embarrassed or they buy into attacking the front runner, who’s not going to show up smartly, wisely. Then we’re going to actually do significantly more harm than good,” Bowyer added. 

The RNC was weighing lifting its rule that prevented candidates from participating in any 2024 election forum that was not sanctioned by the RNC, the Washington Post first reported on Dec. 1. The RNC had required White House hopefuls to sign a loyalty pledge that kept them from participating in non-RNC-sanctioned events if they wished to compete in the organization’s debates.

The party enforced this arrangement in November after candidates received an invite to a “Thanksgiving Family Forum” in Iowa. The RNC threatened that if the candidates participated, they would be disqualified from future debates. Following some pushback, the RNC later decided that the event was not to be considered a debate, thus allowing candidates to attend without consequences.

Shortly after the first reports that the RNC was considering lifting this rule, CNN and ABC News announced on Dec. 7 that they were planning to host Republican presidential primary debates. CNN announced its debates would occur on Jan. 10 at Drake University in Iowa and on Jan. 21 in New Hampshire. ABC News announced that it would partner with WMUR-TV, a local station, to host a Republican presidential debate on Jan. 18 at Saint Anselm College in New Hampshire. (RELATED: CNN Apparently Made A Big-Time Mistake When Announcing It’s Hosting GOP Debates)

Neither of these debates is sponsored by the RNC, though CNN noted in its announcement that the party was supposed to lift its rule that bars candidates from participating in non-RNC-sanctioned debates. The RNC had yet to formally announce it was doing so, but CNN proceeded with their announcement anyway. Confusion followed CNN’s release, with many social media users believing that the network’s debates were sponsored by the RNC, or at least involved the party’s participation.

A CNN spokesperson refused to say whether the network had been communicating with the RNC directly, instead telling the Daily Caller that the network expected the RNC to lift its rule releasing “candidates from its requirement that prevents them from participating in non-RNC-sanctioned debates.”

RNC spokeswoman Emma Vaughn told the Daily Caller that the note in the CNN article was not the result of conversations with the party, adding that the RNC’s deliberations had been previously reported by various outlets. Vaughn added that the RNC “had no idea CNN was doing this” and that she, as well as the party, learned of the news from CNN’s announcement.

The day after CNN and ABC News’ announcement, the RNC voted to pause its participation in the presidential primary debates and lift its rule, thus allowing presidential candidates to participate in the CNN and ABC News debates if they qualify.

RNC national committee members voiced their frustration with the decision, arguing that lifting the rule while pausing its participation in the presidential primary debates gifted left-leaning outlets like CNN and ABC the opportunity to drag down GOP candidates.

The RNC pulled out of the Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD), which has long overseen the process, in 2022. RNC Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel said at the time that the CPD was “biased” and had “refused to enact simple and commonsense reforms to help ensure fair debates.”

Jason Thompson, a Georgia national committeeman, echoed Bowyer’s sentiments, adding that he felt the RNC was undoing the progress it made when it left the CPD.

“I think it was bad form,” Thompson told the Daily Caller. “We pulled out of the Commission on Presidential Debates for a reason. And the purpose was because we didn’t want to have what happened in the past where we’ve got moderators who hate our candidates and are trying to set them up. So it’s disappointing that CNN has two of the debates.”

“I actually like what Vivek Ramaswamy had to say when he said we should have people like Tucker Carlson, Joe Rogan, Elon Musk, etc. I think that’s kind of what everyone had in mind when we pulled out of the Presidential Commission on Debates,” Thompson continued. “It ended up being more of the same. Business as usual.” (RELATED: ‘CORRUPT MEDIA!’: Vivek Nukes The RNC’s Entire NBC Panel, Crowd Goes Nuts)

But the RNC disagrees with some of its own members’ criticism. The party’s decision to pause its hosting of debates while allowing candidates to participate in any forum they want without punishment does not mean the party is partnering with or “blessing” CNN and ABC News with the opportunity to do a debate, Vaughn told the Daily Caller.

Vaughn deflected blame to the candidates themselves, arguing that the CNN debates won’t be possible if the White House hopefuls don’t show up for them.

“Again, the candidates themselves would have to partner with CNN or ABC,” Vaughn told the Daily Caller. “It’s not like the RNC is saying ‘we’re not doing debates we want CNN and ABC to do it,’ we are saying candidates are able to participate in any forum they see fit. We’re not blessing any other network or any network or any media entity for doing this. A headline or in a story [sic] that reflects that is misleading.”

Vaughn added that this reporter has written about five stories on the RNC debates in a week, spanning from a summary of the fourth Presidential debate, to CNN’s plans to host a Republican debate, to the RNC’s decision to change its debate system. Some of the Daily Caller’s headlines published included “Two More Republican Debates Are Coming, And They’ll Both Be On CNN,” “ABC News To Host Republican Debate Days Before CNN” and “RNC Throws In Towel On Debates, Allowing CNN And ABC To Host.”

“I‘m not trying to sparse [sic] words, but clearly like there’s just been a lot of misleading reporting about what the RNC’s decision was last week coming from The Daily Caller,” Vaughn told the Daily Caller, adding that the Caller’s previous coverage implied that the RNC was partnering with CNN. 

Vaughn did not request any corrections or highlight any facts the Caller has gotten wrong in its reporting about the RNC debate process.

Not all RNC members disagreed with the debate committee’s decision.

Janet Fogarty, an RNC committeewoman from Massachusetts, told the Daily Caller that she believes it is time for the candidates to choose who and where they want to debate. Fogarty emphasized that the purpose of the RNC debates was to narrow down the presidential field and they have been successful in doing so. The Massachusetts RNC committeewoman also noted that the RNC originally had no debates scheduled into January.

RNC New Hampshire Chairman Chris Ager told the Daily Caller that ABC News and WMUR-TV, a local station affiliate, have traditionally paired up to host Republican presidential debates.

“The way it looks to me is the best way we can serve the Republican primary voters is to offer a debate with the best location and partner. From where I’m sitting it’s the local television station who understands the issues, has seen the candidates and kind of understands what the voters here are going to need to hear,” Ager told the Daily Caller.

And even though some RNC members are upset with the party’s decision, Vaughn again pointed to the candidates, emphasizing that this is a change they want to see.

Following the controversy with the “Thanksgiving Family Forum,” Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis said attending the event should not “cause the RNC to penalize any candidate,” especially as it is a long standing tradition in the presidential election, according to CNN. After the RNC barred former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and business entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy from doing a joint appearance on Fox News, Christie complained that the RNC’s rule keeps “conversations between candidates from happening.” Ramaswamy aired similar concerns.

The candidates haven’t exactly come to the RNC’s defense, though. DeSantis tweeted confirmation that he would attend the CNN debates, though his campaign press secretary Bryan Griffin refuted the RNC’s argument that it was on the candidates if the debate on CNN happened.

“Of course we have accepted the chance to debate in front of Iowans before the caucus and in New Hampshire ahead of their primary,” Griffin told the Daily Caller. “Concerns about the outlets offering to host these debates should be directed at the RNC for relinquishing control of the process at the last minute. As we’ve said multiple times, we will gladly debate Donald Trump and/or Nikki Haley in Iowa and New Hampshire on Fox, Newsmax, or any state-based outlets as well.”

Ramaswamy Campaign Spokesperson Tricia McLaughlin answered Daily Caller’s questions about the RNC’s handling of debates by pointing to the recent launch of fireronna.com, a petition calling for the unseating of RNC Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel.

“More open debate is good — the fact that they tried to stifle it in the first place is shameful,” McLaughlin told the Daily Caller, after being asked if the campaign believed it was the RNC’s fault CNN was planning to host a debate. “The fact they continually fail to reach conservatives whether it be at the ballot box or with poor debate ratings reveals a losing culture of complacency.”

Ramaswamy’s campaign expressed interest in attending the debate if he qualifies while former United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley, who appears the most likely to qualify for the debate alongside DeSantis, remains noncommittal, according to Axios.

Haley and Christie’s campaigns did not respond to the Daily Caller’s multiple requests for comment.

Both Ramaswamy and DeSantis have recently appeared for town hall events with CNN.

Regardless of how CNN and ABC News’ debates play out, some RNC members still believe it is time for someone else to be in charge.

“Whether [the RNC] chose CNN or not, we still need new leadership at the RNC,” Patti Lyman, a RNC Virginia committeewoman, told the Daily Caller.