The Republican National Committee signaled Thursday that it planned to take steps to bar Republicans from participating in events organized by the Commission on Presidential Debates, a nonpartisan organization that has been coordinating election-year debates since 1987.
The move significantly escalates a feud that had been simmering between the two groups for years before taking a turn for the worse during the 2020 presidential election cycle.
In a letter to CPD co-chairs Frank Fahrenkopf and Kenneth Wollack, RNC Chair Ronna McDaniel alleged that the bipartisan debate group has been effectively snubbing her organization since last spring. Fahrenkopf chaired the RNC himself from 1983 to 1989.
McDaniel appeared miffed that CPD leadership had merely promised to keep the RNC’s proposed reforms “in mind.” She said the RNC would change the rules at its upcoming winter meeting to force candidates seeking the party’s nomination to pledge not to participate in the CPD’s events.
Among other proposals, the RNC had suggested that the CPD schedule debates earlier rather than waiting until after early voting had begun, and asked for “guidelines for appropriate interactions with the participating nominees.”
Leaders of both the Democratic and Republican National Committees established the CPD as a nonprofit more than three decades ago. However, “no sitting officer of either major party has had any affiliation with the CPD” since 1989, according to the organization’s website. The group positions itself as an independent public service financed primarily by the communities that host the debates.
In her letter, McDaniel accused the group of making “serious missteps” and called its board members “partisan actions.” Some CPD board members, such as former Republican Sen. John Danforth, were openly critical of the Republican Party under President Donald Trump.
“The RNC has a duty to ensure that its future presidential nominees have the opportunity to debate their opponents on a level playing field,” McDaniel wrote. “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.”
McDaniel did not elaborate on how Republican nominees might partake in future debates.
At least one Republican lawmaker is skeptical of the RNC’s threat.
“In my own view, that would be nuts,” Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) told HuffPost.
“The American people want to hear from the nominees of the two respective parties. It’s a good chance to understand their views and to see them in a high-pressure situation. It’s a great service to the public,” he said. (Romney is also McDaniel’s uncle.)
The CPD pushed back on McDaniel’s letter with a statement saying the group “deals directly with candidates for President and Vice President” who meet its qualifications.
“The CPD’s plans for 2024 will be based on fairness, neutrality and a firm commitment to help the American public learn about the candidates and the issues,” the statement concluded.
Trump’s campaign clashed with CPD leadership after the now-former president displayed a lack of regard for civil discourse in debates with now-President Joe Biden. In early October 2020, the CPD announced it would implement “additional structure” ― including cutting off microphones ― to its events to “ensure a more orderly discussion.”
One debate between the candidates, which had been scheduled for mid-October 2020, was ultimately canceled.
As noted by The New York Times, problems between the RNC and the CPD stretch back to the 2012 campaign, when a moderator did a live fact-check on a claim Romney made on the debate stage.
Igor Bobic contributed to this report.