The RNC wants Republican candidates to be put to the test during primary debates — even if that means having networks that conservatives normally shy away from host the events.
The debate committee is meeting to discuss the criteria for the first gathering of the 2024 presidential field on Wednesday. They have a request for proposal out to news outlets, the first of its kind, that’s due back by February 15.
“I don't think we can isolate ourselves to just conservative news media,” Jonathan Barnett, an Arkansas committee member, told Semafor.
A Republican familiar with the conversations said the RNC is considering pairing mainstream outlets with conservative outlets as co-moderators, a regular feature of 2016 debates as well, to address member concerns about bias. The RNC’s proposal request includes a section for networks to fill out that dives into whether they’d be open to partnerships.
But part of the goal, the person said, would be to ensure candidates don’t get “softball questions that aren’t of substance” and that they are forced to “talk about policy and give answers.” The RNC meeting notably comes after a midterms in which a number of candidates popular in conservative media circles struggled to connect with independent voters in the general election.
The RNC has tried to exercise more control over debates throughout the last decade in response to Republican complaints that moderators were hostile to their candidates or focused on fringe topics. They voted last year to pull out of the Commission on Presidential Debates, which has sanctioned general election debates over the last four decades.
Iowa GOP chair Jeff Kaufmann told Semafor that it’s a good thing the RNC is reaching out to networks outside the right, because it proves that candidates are willing to take tough questions even as they decry bias by moderators.
“It's just a matter of being completely and utterly fed up with a deck that is deliberately stacked against them,” he explained, expressing a viewpoint that’s been widely echoed within the party.
Matt Wolking, who served as a senior aide on Trump’s 2020 campaign, said the RNC should not put “legacy media up on a pedestal” given that Republican primary voters have increasingly moved on to other options. Still, he saw advantages to the move.
“I think it's important, for Americans and voters, to make it as easy as possible for them to be exposed to the Republican Party, Republican candidates, Republican ideas,” he said.
How candidates respond is an open question. Star politicians like Florida Governor Ron DeSantis have chosen to sidestep traditional news outlets almost entirely in favor of conservative media and the debates would be a significant test. Donald Trump, known for his attacks on the Washington Post and CNN, has also attacked right-leaning outlets owned by Rupert Murdoch in recent months. In 2016, he pulled out of a FOX News debate before the Iowa caucus after the network refused to drop Megyn Kelly as a moderator.