The Republican National Committee informed the Commission on Presidential Debates that it plans to prohibit candidates from participating in debates sponsored by the commission. The move, reported on Thursday by The New York Times, would mean a dramatic shift in how future debates are conducted — if they’re conducted at all.
The RNC will vote on whether to officially adopt the change prohibiting candidates from participating in commission debates next month during its winter meeting in Salt Lake City.
The Republican Party has long claimed the nonpartisan Commission on Presidential Debates is deferential to Democrats, including ahead of the 2016 and 2020 elections when former President Trump regularly griped about the commission’s decisions. Trump has alleged debate moderators were biased against him, complained that debate topics favored Democrats, and even pulled out of a debate in Miami slated for Oct. 2020 after the commission moved to hold it virtually after he tested positive for Covid-19.
The RNC and the commission have reportedly been going back and forth for months over potential changes to placate the party, to no avail. “So long as the CPD appears intent on stonewalling the meaningful reforms necessary to restore its credibility with the Republican Party as a fair and nonpartisan actor, the RNC will take every step to ensure that future Republican presidential nominees are given that opportunity elsewhere,” RNC chairwoman Ronna McDaniel wrote in the letter to the commission, which was obtained by NBC News.
Republicans have reportedly been pushing the commission to ensure the first debate is held before early voting begins, which did not wind up being the case in 2020 after the pandemic prompted some states to change their mail-in ballot process. The RNC also wanted to have a nonvoting representatives from either the RNC or Democratic National Committee at commission board meetings, a request the commission rejected, according to the Times. “We take the RNC’s observations and suggestions seriously and, as we have said previously, we will give them careful consideration,” the commission wrote the RNC in December. “In furtherance of our position as a nonpartisan, neutral body, which neither favors nor disfavors any party or candidate, we do not negotiate the terms or conditions of our operations with anyone.”
The Commission on Presidential Debates was founded in 1987 as a nonprofit entity meant to formalize the presidential debate process. If Republicans reject the commission going forward, the two parties would have to come to terms independently if any debates are going to be held ahead of the 2024 election and beyond. Republicans and Democrats agreeing isn’t really a thing that happens anymore, and it’s entirely possible they won’t be able to agree on this, either. It’s also possible that the GOP might determine it’s not in its best interest to participate in debates, regardless.
Republicans refusing to participate in debates in smaller elections has become increasingly common, ostensibly out of fear that exposure to the public in an environment they’re not able to control is going to make them look bad. Most recently, Virginia gubernatorial candidate Glenn Youngkin refused to participate in a debate with Democrat Terry McAuliffe last summer, citing concerns that proposed moderate Judy Woodruff was not impartial. Youngkin won the election anyway.
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