The Sean Hannity moderated GOP debate that never was: New report outlines why the only right-wing media debate of the cycle fell apart

Evangelical Liberty University was originally set to co-host host a GOP debate this week with The Washington Times

By Sophia Tesfaye

Senior Politics Editor

Published January 20, 2016 6:58PM (EST)

  (AP/Reuters/Tami Chappell/Susan Walsh/Fox News)
(AP/Reuters/Tami Chappell/Susan Walsh/Fox News)

According to a new report from Politico, the remaining Republican presidential candidates were to converge on Jerry Fallwell's evangelical Liberty University this week, not for one of the school's thrice-weekly convocations, but for the only GOP presidential debate of the cycle by the conservative base, for the conservative base.

Sadly, the only candidate to trek to Lynchburg, Virginia, this week was Donald Trump, who dedicated his "2 Corinthians" flub of a speech to the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. on the civil rights icon's national holiday.

There will be no Liberty University hosted Republican presidential debate and America has Ben Carson to thank for that.

Recall last fall's mini-uproar following the CNBC debate where nearly all of the candidates openly attacked the debate moderators and mocked their questions in an attempt to milk the right-wing librul media bias shtick? Republican National Committee (RNC) chair Reince Preibus was forced to cancel the party's partnership with the network (including a scheduled debate in partnership with the conservative National Review) after the campaigns of Ben Carson and Donald Trump threatened to boycott all party-sanctioned debates following the CNBC disaster.

“I think the families need to get together here, because these debates as structured by the RNC are not helping the party,” Carson's then campaign manager, Barry Bennet, said at the time.

Well, reportedly, in a desperate attempt to maintain control over the remaining debate schedule, Priebus made some drastic concessions, including reneging on a crucial promise that conservative media could completely control at least one 2016 debate. According to Politico, right-wing media outlets had lobbied the RNC for over a year to dedicate at least one "conservative, grassroots debate" not controlled by any television network:

Talks about hosting a conservative, grassroots debate began as far back as autumn 2014. RNC officials and the Times visited Liberty multiple times, with Liberty at one point flying the negotiators and the production team the group planned to use down to the university at the school’s expense. Liberty even moved a scheduled, televised NCAA basketball game from its Vines center to accommodate the January 2016 forum.

And by early November 2015, more than a year after those talks began, reports of a coming Jan. 16 debate began to surface, quoting Liberty President Jerry Falwell Jr. and RNC chief strategist and spokesman Sean Spicer, who then was the lead negotiator on the debates and spearheaded the very idea of a conservative-run forum.


But by the end of November, all of the planning came to a screeching halt.

On Monday, Nov. 30, RNC Chairman Reince Priebus told Liberty and Falwell that the debate was being scrapped because the logistics of setting up and running this kind of event were simply too overwhelming for the party to handle without the aid of a television network.

After all, as leading Republican presidential contender Donald Trump made clear after the first GOP debate back in August, in which he maligned moderator Megyn Kelly for daring to ask him about his own past statements, Fox News is firmly part of the mainstream media, so its debates don't necessarily count as "conservative." Nevertheless, according to reporting from Hadas Gold and Shane Goldmacher, Fox News host Sean Hannity was originally approached to moderate the conservative media debate, along with Bloomberg Politics’ Mark Halperin. (Take from that what you will).

In the end, dreams of a right-wing media sponsored, hosted and moderated debate were not crushed by concerns that all the crazy would prove too overwhelming for any potential general election voters tuning in, but by a fear of even drawing more candidate's ire:

But what really changed the game, according to The Washington Times’ [John] Solomon and others involved in the process, was the CNBC debate on Oct. 28 – a forum whose format, questions and moderators infuriated the Republican campaigns so much that candidates began to move against the RNC.


The RNC announced on Dec. 8 that Fox Business would host a Jan. 14 debate, putting the final nail in the coffin of the conservative-media debate planned for Liberty University.

“After that, I was told the RNC’s tolerance for risk taking was lower, even though they loved the idea of a grassroots debate,” the former Editor and Vice President for Content of The Washington Times told Politico.

To avoid further reports of an all out GOP civil war, Politico reports that "the RNC promised The Washington Times a partnership in a future debate – now revealed to be the March CNN Debate – in exchange for a promise that the newspaper would not report on how the conservative-media debate fell apart."

Now, instead of a Sean Hannity moderated, complete right-wing media takeover of a GOP presidential debate, both the Washington Times and the National Review will be forced to co-host their respective debates with CNN.

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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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