Politics & Policy

Why Reince Priebus Isn’t Worried about the Debate Uproar

Reince Priebus in the spin room in Boulder. (Andrew Burton/Getty)

Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus convened two conference calls with his members Monday, amid plotting by GOP campaigns to hijack negotiations with TV networks over future primary debates, and gave assurances that the committee’s carefully planned debate season isn’t in jeopardy.

Questions about tweaking the fine-print details of the GOP’s upcoming debates — or upending the framework completely — have loomed over the RNC since last week’s disastrous CNBC event. Will the Republican National Committee continue to call the shots? Will the candidates band together and bargain with the television networks? Or will Donald Trump go it alone, forcing the RNC’s media partners and his GOP challengers to bend to his will?

It doesn’t really matter, party officials say. At this point in the process, the campaigns’ activity amounts to jockeying for position inside the infrastructure Priebus created rather than an effort to dismantle it.

Despite a sudden uproar over rules and regulations — especially as it pertains to moderators — the overarching structure of the Republican debate season remains entirely intact, and that’s unlikely to change. The RNC has six more sanctioned debates on its schedule, with another three pending based on the state of the race. Barring a unanimous pact between the candidates of stunning proportion, that framework will remain.

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The candidates, despite their criticisms of the media and of the RNC itself have neither the ability nor the appetite to destroy the process Priebus labored to streamline ahead of this 2016 primary season.

The RNC’s core mission in reforming the 2016 debate process always focused on the big picture: cutting the total number of contests, spreading them out geographically, and introducing a conservative-media element. While the third objective remains a work in progress — it was always the most slippery — the first two have already been achieved, allowing for today’s dialogue about room temperature rather than about returning to New Hampshire for a fourth debate, as the candidates did in 2012.

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“We accomplished everything we wanted and more,” Ron Kaufman, the RNC committeeman from Massachusetts and a member of its committee on debates, says. “But all that other stuff — the size of the hall, the temperature in the room — that was left for candidates to talk about. All the things Ben [Ginsberg] is talking about are campaign-specific. Those things were not part of our mandate.”

When Republican super-lawyer Ben Ginsberg met with representatives from many of the GOP campaigns at a suburban Washington hotel Sunday night, he drew up a list of their demands — everything from time-allotment for opening and closing statements to room temperature and permissible camera angles.

#share#The RNC’s reaction to all of this, then, was a collective shrug — relieved that sweeping structural changes weren’t being sought, and skeptical that even the smaller-scale asks will be agreed upon by rival campaigns.

For starters, party officials say, the odds of every Republican campaign signing a letter that makes uniform demands of future debate hosts aren’t very good. (As of Monday night, hours after a revised draft of the letter was circulated, several campaigns were balking.) That said, if the candidates do band together and bargain collectively with the networks, RNC members say it won’t bother them one bit.

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“The RNC is the sanctioning body, but we’re a very entrepreneurial party, and I think the campaigns and the networks can sort all of this out,” says Georgia committeeman Randy Evans. “It’s unlike the [general-election] presidential debates, which are heavily regulated and subject to a lot of rules and tradition. This is all just part of the process.”

Kaufman, who after nearly 30 years with the RNC is its longest-serving member, says that it’s standard for campaigns to voice their criticisms as the debate season moves along. “The candidates want to get together to discuss things they’re mad about? Good. They should!”

Priebus took aggressive action Sunday to preempt further escalation by the campaigns, naming a new chief negotiator for the RNC.

What’s not standard, of course, is the campaigns’ meeting privately to discuss potential changes and making it known that the RNC won’t be welcome to negotiate on their behalf the rest of the way. Recognizing the unusual circumstances, Priebus took aggressive action Sunday to preempt further escalation by the campaigns, naming a new chief negotiator for the RNC.

That announcement came three days after Priebus, on a Thursday morning conference call with members of the RNC’s 2016 Debate Committee, suggested suspending NBC News from moderating a scheduled February 26 debate in Houston. The panel voted unanimously in favor, according to its chairman, New Hampshire committeeman Steve Duprey.

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Those decisions were made not only to placate the campaigns, but to reflect internal angst over CNBC’s alleged breaking of promises — and to warn other networks of consequences for doing so. (Several RNC members suggested that NBC will get the debate back, once the heat dies down; others, such as Evans, “always had doubts” about the network and aren’t keen on giving it back.)

After the campaigns met Sunday, Priebus and Duprey convened another conference call Monday morning, followed by an RNC-wide call in the afternoon. The takeaway from both calls, according to participants, was that nothing being discussed by the campaigns threatened to dismantle their carefully planned debate season.

#related#“It’s impossible,” says Evans, a member of the debate committee and president of the Republican National Lawyers Association. “No candidate is irreplaceable, and no network is irreplaceable. If a network doesn’t agree to certain conditions, guess what? Every other network will line up to get 26 million viewers. And if a candidate decides they don’t want to be on that stage, guess what? Other candidates will race to take their spot.”

Evans, who haggled over the 2012 debates as Newt Gingrich’s general counsel, says at this point in the process there’s too much at stake for those involved to walk away.

“Everybody has a lot of skin in the game. The networks are making millions off free programming, so no matter how much bluster they put up they aren’t going to walk away from that advertising revenue over small things. And the candidates all get enormous earned media from being on that debate stage.”

“And the party has skin in the game,” Evans adds, “because we’ve put so much work into this.”

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