Several Republican presidential campaigns began mapping out new demands Sunday for greater control over the format and content of primary debates, which have attracted big audiences and become strategically critical for the 2016 cycle’s expansive field of contenders.
The effort was a response to long-simmering frustrations over the debates, the questions and in some cases the moderators, which boiled over this weekend when advisers from at least 11 campaigns met in the Washington suburbs to deliberate about how to regain sway over the process.
The private gathering became the latest twist in what has been a turbulent season of debates for the GOP, with less-popular candidates — including a sitting senator and governor — furious about being relegated to a little-watched “undercard” debate and the front-runners dismayed by a system they have described as a disastrous brew of bias and arbitrary rules.
The meeting also exposed a leadership rift that has widened in recent days between the Republican National Committee, which negotiated the debate schedule and formats, and some of the candidates. RNC officials said they would not participate in Sunday’s meeting, but they have been reassuring campaign operatives that they are willing to recalibrate the events.
Shortly before the meeting began, RNC Chairman Reince Priebus announced a staff shake-up within the GOP that appeared intended to calm the unhappiness of the presidential campaigns.
The stakes are high, coming just days before the fourth Republican presidential debate and as the record-setting audiences continue to exert immense influence over the race. Former Texas governor Rick Perry and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker left the race after underwhelming debate appearances, and former Florida governor Jeb Bush has seen his campaign rocked by a poorly reviewed performance last week during the CNBC debate in Colorado.
Hillary Rodham Clinton’s effective turn at the first Democratic primary debate last month only intensified the need for Republicans to coalesce and improve their party’s public image. With donors and activists watching the debates closely to see who is most aligned with grass-roots conservatives, they are also assessing who is best positioned for a general-election matchup. That has left Republican candidates clamoring for more airtime — and taking out their anger on the networks they believe are giving them short shrift.
GOP campaign operatives began arriving at the Hilton Alexandria Old Town at around 5:30 p.m. Sunday and headed straight upstairs to what had been code-named “family dinner.”
As the meeting got underway, senior strategists from several presidential campaigns revealed in e-mails and text messages that Priebus’s staff shake-up was not enough. One campaign manager, who was granted anonymity to speak about the private meeting, wrote: “Major question is if the RNC should be involved at all.”
The campaigns reached an early consensus on one issue, according to several operatives in the room: the secure standing of Fox News Channel. Any changes would be applied to debates after next week’s Fox Business Network debate. Among the reasons, according to one operative in the room, was that “people are afraid to make Roger [Ailes] mad,” a reference to the network’s chief.
Bush campaign manager Danny Diaz recommended that Telemundo be reinstated after being dropped along with NBC. But the campaign of businessman Donald Trump, represented by manager Corey Lewandowski, threatened to boycott a debate if the Spanish-language network that Trump has clashed with was granted one.
Representatives from the undercard campaigns of Sen. Lindsey Graham (S.C.), former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum and Gov. Bobby Jindal (La.) told reporters that they would focus on what Graham adviser Brett O’Donnell called “equal treatment” for their campaigns — two debates, each with seven randomly selected candidates.
Ben Carson’s campaign manager, Barry Bennett, was hopeful that the group could agree on one two-hour debate with every candidate onstage.
“Of course, we’re not going to get five-minute opening statements,” Bennett said, but “you can do a lot in two hours.”
Some tension was already in the air, however, about that idea. Several campaigns, including Trump’s, were more interested in reducing the number of candidates on the stage.
“One of the big goals is allowing for more substance and equal time,” said Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the campaign manager for her father, former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee. “It does make that difficult if there are multiple candidates but the debate’s capped at two hours.”
Carson advisers have also proposed airing the debates on the Internet rather than on television.
Carson and Trump, two GOP polling leaders who got relatively little time at the CNBC debate, kick-started the idea for a strategy session late last week in a series of phone calls between their top advisers. Others quickly jumped on board.
Bush’s team still feels shortchanged not only about how much airtime he was given but also the way the network described him to viewers. According to Republicans close to the Bush operation, his on-screen biography listed his work as a banker rather than his record as governor. Bush’s advisers have groused that the RNC should have done a better job alerting the campaigns about the broadcast and letting the candidates shape their biographical details.
“The last debate was kind of ridiculous,” Bush told reporters in Iowa on Saturday. “I say this somewhat in jest: At least there was someone who fared worse in the last debate than me — CNBC.”
CNBC’s status as a totem of media bias grew all weekend, as much of the Republican field descended on Iowa. Sen. Ted Cruz (Tex.), whose jeremiad against the press was seen as a defining moment of the debate, told conservatives at one stop that Sean Hannity, Mark Levin and Rush Limbaugh — conservative radio hosts with different styles and huge audiences — should be called in to moderate.
Several candidates also weighed in on the Sunday-morning talk-show circuit.
“As far as I’m concerned, these debates are to highlight the differences in philosophy between the candidates, particularly when you have as many candidates as we have now,” Carson said on ABC’s “This Week” on Sunday morning. “We need to tighten it up a little bit and do it more like a professional type of debate.”
Ohio Gov. John Kasich said candidates do not have enough time to explain their positions during debates. He said he preferred a setting in which candidates could answer “a lot of questions over a period of time where I could actually explain myself, instead of having to go so quickly to take on complex issues in short periods of time.”
“I know that Harry Truman couldn’t get elected president explaining the United States’ health-care plan in 30 seconds,” Kasich said on CNN’s “State of the Union.”
Former Silicon Valley executive Carly Fiorina, whose agility as a debater has lifted her candidacy, said that the political leanings of moderators should come under more scrutiny.
“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,” she said on ABC’s “This Week.”
Sunday’s meeting was facilitated by longtime Republican attorney and fixer Ben Ginsberg, who is unaffiliated and has crafted deals between the networks and presidential campaigns. “I’m just here for dinner with friends,” Ginsberg told a pursuing swarm of reporters as he located the room.
Meanwhile, the RNC was keeping tabs from afar. Republicans familiar with the party’s leadership said Priebus and his inner circle viewed the meeting as an understandable venting and planning meeting for the campaigns — but they did not fear that the RNC would be boxed out of its role in coordinating the debates with the networks. Instead, the Republicans said, Priebus sees himself as a liaison and “bulldog,” as one of his associates put it, for the campaigns as they push for changes.
But Priebus has become a target too, as anger has grown within the GOP over the debates.
“I told Priebus about a week ago that I didn’t like the structure of the debates and how the party was rationing them,” Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) said in an interview. “I said, ‘Something has to change.’ I know they didn’t anticipate 15 candidates in the debates, but there are, and it blew up on them. These debates aren’t what they should be. You have the wrong people in charge of the subject matter and topics, setting candidates up for cheap shots.”
Priebus sent a signal of solidarity last week with the campaigns over the CNBC debate, widely panned by GOP candidates as poorly managed and lacking meaty policy discussions, by suspending NBC News’s role in a future debate. Few campaigns have expressed satisfaction with that decision. Several strategists said the need for the huddle Sunday was due largely to complaints that had been building since the summer but remained unaddressed by the RNC.
The RNC’s execution of debates has evolved. In 2012, it did not dictate the schedule as it has for the 2016 primaries. But after watching the major networks schedule 20 debates, widely seen by GOP campaigns as too many, Priebus decided to take hold of planning the calendar, the rules and the setup, hoping to bring order to what had been a chaotic structure.
The shift in how the debates are organized was first celebrated by many Republicans for seeming to streamline the events after what many viewed as a disastrous, overscheduled calendar in 2012. But with the undercard debate players struggling to find a way onto the main stage and the main-stage candidates feeling crowded and under intense pressure to impress in what has often been a narrow window of time, those good feelings toward the RNC faded, especially among candidates who have not had a positive breakthrough moment. The CNBC debate ratcheted up these concerns as complaints grew about moderators’ questions and the way they shaped the tone and direction of Wednesday’s broadcast.
“Questions from moderators about someone’s morality are uncalled for, and that’s the kind of approach we’d like to see changed,” Sanders said. “There is a real desire from our campaigns and others for more substance. We’re going to talk about possible options to move in that direction, such as bringing in organization heads or non-journalists as moderators to have a debate that is focused on the issues that matter to Republicans.”
Abby Phillip and Michelle Ye Hee Lee contributed to this report.