The Republican National Committee is suspending its participation in a scheduled February debate hosted by NBC News and Telemundo after complaints from GOP presidential campaigns about this week’s CNBC debate, RNC chairman Reince Priebus announced on Friday.
“While debates are meant to include tough questions and contrast candidates’ visions and policies for the future of America, CNBC’s moderators engaged in a series of ‘gotcha’ questions, petty and mean-spirited in tone, and designed to embarrass our candidates,” Priebus said in a letter to NBC News and MSNBC chairman Andrew Lack.
Among the complaints Priebus cited: Insufficient focus on the debate’s theme of economic and financial issues, uneven screen time for candidates, and “inaccurate or downright offensive” questions. NBC News and CNBC share a parent company and operate independently.
According to Priebus, the RNC will sanction a candidate debate for the same February 26 date, but as of now will only work with National Review, a conservative outlet that was also set to participate in the NBC/Telemundo debate. .
“This is a disappointing development,” NBC News said in a statement. ”However, along with our debate broadcast partners at Telemundo we will work in good faith to resolve this matter with the Republican Party.”
The RNC’s move comes after an array of complaints from Republican candidates about their primary debates, culminating with the CNBC gathering. Aides to several contenders will meet this weekend in Washington to vent their frustration, MSNBC has confirmed, without the RNC present.
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. Individual campaigns have also raised issues with the length and number of the debates as well as their format, particularly regarding opening and closing statements. Ten campaigns have signed on to the summit to take place this weekend, NBC News reported.
“There is a unification around taking control of the debate in some format and taking it out of the hands of the network and the RNC,” an aide to one GOP campaign participating in the meeting told NBC News. “They got three strikes, they’re out.”
Well aware of the mounting anger, RNC chairman Reince Priebus has complained repeatedly since the debate ahead of his Friday announcement.
“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.”
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. Some of the candidates attacked the debate moderators from the podium Wednesday, drawing loud applause from the crowd.
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.
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 Marco 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 Ted 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.
He 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. On Friday, Trump hailed the RNC’s decision to suspend NBC News from the February debate, citing the CNBC event’s “lack of substance and respect” in a statement.
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.