GOP Candidates Stage Coup, Plan to Boot RNC From Debate Process

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GOP 2016 Debate
The candidates before the ill-fated CNBC debate. Photo: Mark J. Terrill/© Corbis. All Rights Reserved.

Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus has gone to great lengths to show solidarity with the GOP’s presidential candidates following last week’s CNBC debacle, from fuming on Fox News that the debate was “nothing but a crap sandwich” to replacing the party official responsible for negotiating with the networks. Nevertheless, representatives from 12 of the 14 campaigns went ahead with their plan to meet at the Hilton Alexandria Old Town in Virginia on Sunday night to discuss the debate process, and the RNC wasn’t invited.

The meeting was described by all parties as friendly, and the campaigns are said to be preparing a letter listing their demands for future debates, with the help of top GOP lawyer Ben Ginsberg, who was invited to facilitate the discussion. The campaigns plan to release the final version in the next 48 hours, but Corey Lewandowski, Donald Trump’s campaign manager, tells Breitbart that the “biggest consensus” among the campaigns was that the RNC needs to be cut out of the debate process.

A second anonymous campaign manager said the RNC may handle basic logistics, but in the future, “campaigns will take the lead” in negotiating with the networks. RNC chief spokesman Sean Spicer, the official removed from debate duty, didn’t challenge the candidates’ attempt to wrest control from the party. “The RNC is fully committed to serving the interests of our campaigns,” he said. “We support the best format to present their vision to lead America forward.”

As the Washington Post notes, the RNC’s involvement in the debates is a relatively new development. Priebus stepped in to make the process less chaotic after the networks scheduled 20 debates in 2012, but many of the candidates feel the party hasn’t reined in the networks, or been responsive to their concerns.

There were some disagreements between the campaigns about what’s wrong with the current system. Last week, the RNC suspended the debate hosted by NBC News and Telemundo on February 26, but the Bush campaign, which needs to court Latino voters, pushed to reinstate Telemundo as host. Trump’s representative said they would boycott a Telemundo debate, since the candidate is feuding with the Spanish-language network. Representatives for Lindsey Graham, Rick Santorum, and Bobby Jindal, who have been relegated to the undercard debate, pushed for two debates per night with seven randomly assigned candidates, which isn’t a priority for the other campaigns. Ben Carson’s representative proposed putting all 14 candidates in one debate, but Trump wants to see fewer people take the stage.

But according to Lewandowski, Trump’s rep, and Carson campaign manager Barry Bennett, the campaign reached a consensus on several major points. In addition to reducing the RNC’s role, they want more notice on the networks’ qualification criteria, debates limited to two hours with commercials, preapproval of onscreen graphics (the Bush camp complained that CNBC focused more on his business career than what he did as Florida governor), opening and closing statements, and “greater parity and greater integrity” in questions.

The Post obtained a draft of a letter that would be sent to campaigns that want to host debates. It includes nearly 20 questions about the debate format and says the sheet will be “used by each campaign to determine whether its candidate will participate in your debate.” One network that doesn’t need to worry about the latest shake-up in the GOP primary is Fox News. Though Trump had quite a few issues with the first debate, a source in the room told the Post any changes would be applied after the debate hosted by Fox Business Network and and The Wall Street Journal on November 10 — not because it’s short notice, but because of network chief Roger Ailes. “People are afraid to make Roger mad,” said the source.