TIME 2016 Election

GOP Takes Control of 2016 Primary Debates

Reince Priebus
Chairman of the Republican National Committee Reince Priebus addresses an audience at the National Association of Black Journalists convention, Thursday, July 31, 2014, in Boston. Steven Senneā€”AP

Attempt to avoid alienating swing voters

The Republican National Committee finalized plans Friday to seize control of GOP’s presidential primary debates, threatening sanctions against any candidate that participates in any unauthorized debates.

RNC Chairman Reince Priebus announced a 13-member committee of Republican officials who will set rules for the GOP’s debates during the 2016 cycle, including selecting venues, debate partners, and even moderators. The committee will be led by Priebus ally Steve Duprey of New Hampshire, who was close to both Mitt Romney and John McCain. The committee is dominated by Priebus loyalists.

“Our debates will be good for our candidates and for voters—not a field day for the media,” Priebus told members of the RNC on Friday in Chicago, shortly before the party approved its final rules for the 2016 presidential nomination fight.

The committee’s formation is a response to the nearly 20 primary debates held during the 2012 cycle, including two New Hampshire debates within 16 hours in January 2012. The committee will meet for the first time Friday afternoon, but many items on its agenda are already in motion. The committee, party insiders said, will likely set eight or nine primary debates for the 2016 cycle, with no more than one in each early-voting state. The debates will be spaced evenly throughout the cycle.

Republicans are hoping to keep the debates from focusing on issues that could alienate the party’s eventual nominee from swing voters, especially some social issues. And GOP officials are still fuming over the second general election presidential debate in 2012, during which CNN anchor Candy Crowley challenged Romney’s critique of President Barack Obama’s response to the Benghazi attacks. The committee is empowered to negotiate with media outlets over the timing and selection of moderators for the debates, demands that are likely to be met with hostility by many outlets. Some Republicans have suggested that some debates could be moderated by partisans, in a bid to make the debates more friendly to their candidates.

Any candidate who participates in a debate that is unsanctioned by the RNC’s committee will be barred from appearing in any of the authorized debates, according to the party’s rules.

The RNC debate committee has yet to determine the qualification standards for candidates to earn a spot on the stage.

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