After an array of complaints from Republican candidates about their primary debates that peaked with Wednesday’s CNBC-hosted gathering, aides to several contenders will gather this weekend in Washington to vent their frustration, MSNBC has confirmed.
Since the first Republican debate, hosted by Fox News in August, campaigns have criticized many aspects of the debates including the tone and subject of questions, the distribution of speaking time, and the polling requirements to be part of the main-stage event. These issues came to a head in CNBC’s “Your Money, Your Vote” debate on Wednesday, in which several candidates clashed with moderators.
Sunday’s meeting, first reported by Politico, will pointedly exclude the Republican National Committee, which has partnered with media organizations hosting the various debates to set the rules and manage any issues that pop up. According to NBC News’ Chris Jansing, an organizer of the hastily arranged summit said 10 campaigns have signed on.
The campaigns have each raised a number of different issues, some of which may be in conflict with each other, and the goal of the meeting will be to see if they can reach a consensus on their demands for the RNC and debate hosts moving forward.
The RNC is struggling to handle what may be an impossible task — managing a gigantic presidential field that began with 17 candidates and has since shrunk to 14 debate participants. The committee was more actively involved in this year’s format and schedule after concerns that the 2012 cycle’s endless schedule of debates dragged the party down by fostering division and pushing the candidates into uncomfortable-issue territory. Under new rules, this year’s candidates are penalized for participating in any debate not sanctioned by the RNC.
Well aware of the mounting anger, RNC chairman Reince Priebus has complained repeatedly since Wednesday’s debate, saying it did not focus enough on its theme of financial issues and instead encouraged candidates to criticize each other.
“I just can’t tell you how pissed off I am,” Priebus said on Fox News on Thursday. He added he would “make sure that we can do everything possible to make sure last night doesn’t happen again.”
In a widely replayed moment from the debate, Ted Cruz accused the moderators of fostering a “cage match” with tough questions that highlighted their differences with one another. Dr. Ben Carson, who reached out to other campaigns after the debate, complained about a “gotcha” question about his ties to a company called Mannatech that made outlandish promises about curing cancer and autism with nutritional supplements. Carson derided the question as “propaganda” at the debate and said he had no involvement with the company, but his answer turned out to be inaccurate — he had contracted with the company to support its product (which he praised on the debate stage) and appeared in promotional videos.
Christie, for his part, shot back that “even in New Jersey what you’re doing is called rude” after being asked a follow up question on his energy policy.
Jeb Bush’s campaign manager Danny Diaz confronted CNBC producers mid-debate to complain that his candidate was not being called on enough. “I did communicate with CNBC displeasure about speaking time,” he told reporters in the spin room afterwards.
An aide to Rubio’s campaign told NBC News’ Hallie Jackson that they were unsure whether they would participate in the weekend event. While Rubio has complained about CNBC’s questions since Wednesday, there’s less motivation to rock the boat given that he was widely credited with winning the debate.
“It’s kind of like going to the guys who won the Super Bowl and asking ‘Were you peeved at the refs?’ Eh, I’ll give them a pass,” top Rubio staffer Terry Sullivan told reporters Wednesday when asked about the various debate complaints.
An adviser to the Cruz campaign, Jeff Roe, told MSNBC he was still not aware of the details of the debate summit. A super PAC supporting Cruz, Make DC Listen, sent a fundraising email to supporters on Friday highlighting Cruz’s criticism of the CNBC moderators.
Debate bashing has been a constant fixture of the campaign since the Fox gathering, which broke viewership records. Donald Trump was the main antagonist in that case, ratcheting up his criticism in a CNN interview that moderator Megyn Kelly had “blood coming out of her whatever” when she asked him a tough question in the debate about his rhetoric toward women.
Trump went on to preemptively predict mistreatment from CNN and CNBC ahead of each of those networks’ debates and on Wednesday complained about “not a very nicely asked question” from moderator John Harwood about whether his platform was a “comic book version” of a campaign.
Candidates, especially those at the lower end of the polling spectrum, have also complained about being relegated into an undercard debate — popularly dubbed the “kids table” — and some of the higher polling contenders have taken their side.
Some have suggested alternatives, including hosting two debates with a mix of candidates from both tiers. With the RNC’s encouragement, CNN tweaked requirements to ensure Carly Fiorina made the second debate’s main stage after she and even some of her rivals argued their criteria was discounting her improvement in the polls. Former GOP nominee Mitt Romney complained this week about Sen. Lindsey Graham, who barely registers in polls, being left off the main stage as well.