War has come to the Republicans: Inside their secret meeting to rewrite debate rules

The 2016 candidates are in revolt following last week's CNBC debate. A primer on what went down last night

By Sophia Tesfaye

Senior Politics Editor

Published November 2, 2015 2:47PM (EST)

Marco Rubio, Donald Trump, Ted Cruz   (AP/Reuters/Gary Cameron/Joe Skipper/Jose Luis Magana)
Marco Rubio, Donald Trump, Ted Cruz (AP/Reuters/Gary Cameron/Joe Skipper/Jose Luis Magana)

Stunned by Wednesday's disastrous CNBC debate and buoyed by the popularity of running against the myth of liberal media bias, the campaigns of several Republican presidential candidates gathered for a Sunday night “family dinner" at a Hilton in Alexandria, Virginia to hash out demands for future debates without the input of the Republican National Committee.

Ahead of Sunday's meeting, Republican candidates were still railing against CNBC. Texas Senator Ted Cruz told a conservative forum in Iowa on Saturday that “what you have is a bunch of left-wing operatives whose object is that whoever the Republican nominee is, they want him as battered and bruised as possible so the Democrat wins in November.”

“If you’re not making the decisions yourself, if you’re not a conservative, if you haven’t known many conservatives, the questions you ask are not the questions that actually conservative voters care about,” he explained.

“How about instead of a bunch of attack journalists, we actually have real conservatives,” he proposed to raucous crowd cheers. “Could you imagine a debate moderated by Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh and Mark Levin?”

Well, in a move meant to appease disgruntled GOP campaigns, RNC Chairman Reince Priebus announced a staff shake-up shortly before the meeting began. It didn't work. The campaigns still circumvented the party apparatus to hash out a new list of demands for future debates.

Despite a shared goal, there were still tensions within the "family" about strategy. Jeb Bush's campaign manager Danny Diaz urged the group to reinstate a planned Feb. 26 debate with Telemundo after the RNC hurriedly fired off a letter to NBC News last week announcing plans to suspend involvement with the network's future debates, including the February debate in conjunction with Telemundo. But Trump's campaign refused to budge, with campaign manager Corey Lewandowski even threatening to boycott the debate if it was reinstated, according to Politico.

The campaigns did reach an early consensus on one issue, however, according to the Washington Post: No changes would be made until after the next Fox debate, on the Fox Business Network. According to one operative in the room, “people are afraid to make Roger [Ailes] mad.”

Despite attempts to move the debate from television to the internet (Ben Carson's suggestion), allow for one, two hour debate with every candidate (another idea from the Carson camp), and another proposal to have two debates with candidates randomly selected to participate (Lindsey Graham's idea), the gathered campaigns finally settled on a comprise agreement. From the New York Times:

They emerged with a modest list of demands, including opening and closing statements of at least 30 seconds; “parity and integrity” on questions, meaning that all candidates would receive similarly substantive questions; no so-called lightning rounds; and approval of any graphics that are aired during the debate.

The campaign representatives also moved to take the Republican National Committee out of the debate negotiating process, calling for the campaigns to negotiate directly with the TV networks over format, and to receive information about the rules and criteria at least 30 days before each debate.

Republican lawyer Ben Ginsberg drafted a final letter to the networks by the end of the two hour meeting with some notable demands:

  • "Will you commit to provide equal time/an equal number of questions to each candidate?"
  • "Will you commit that you will not ask the candidates to raise their hands to answer a questions
  • "Will you commit that you will not ask yes/no questions without time to provide a substantive answer
  • "Will you commit that you will not allow candidate-to-candidate questioning…?"
  • "Can you pledge that the temperature in the hall be kept below 67 degrees?"

However, at least one candidate is denying the campaigns have reached a consensus on how to handle the media and future debates at all. “First of all, there’s no deal in place among the candidates. So that’s erroneous reporting," New Jersey Governor Christie said in a interview on Fox News. "But secondly, you know, stop complaining. You know, do me favor. Set up a stage, put podiums up there, and let’s just go."

Another Republican presidential candidate, Carly Fiorina, shrugged off the importance of the Sunday evening hundle, telling "Fox & Friends" in an interview this morning that,"We need to understand that the media is not going to be fair."

"We’ve had no trouble negotiating with the networks, and my policy remains what it’s always been: I’ll debate anyone, anytime, anywhere," she said. But Fiorina still complained about the lack of conservative moderators. "This is a debate series for Republican primary voters. And when you don't have a single conservative moderator, when the moderation earns boos from the audience — I mean I've never seen that before where an audience booed the moderation."

Ohio Governor John Kasich tried to distance himself from the Republican whining this weekend, insisting that he was not at all bothered by the CNBC debate or moderators. "In the third debate, they asked me a lot of questions and I didn't feel anything was below the belt," he told CNN on Saturday. "I don't want to spend my time talking about the process of the debate. However they set it, I'll show up and do the best I can to let people know who I am. So it's just not something I'm focused on."

The next GOP debate is scheduled for November 10.

By Sophia Tesfaye

Sophia Tesfaye is Salon's senior editor for news and politics, and resides in Washington, D.C. You can find her on Twitter at @SophiaTesfaye.

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Gop Reince Priebus Republican National Committee Rnc Rnc Chair Reince Priebus