MEMPHIS – The Republican National Committee moved Friday to seize control of the presidential primary debates in 2016, another step in a coordinated effort by the party establishment to reshape the nominating process.
Committee members overwhelmingly passed a measure that would penalize any presidential candidate who participated in a debate not sanctioned by the national party, by limiting their participation in subsequent committee-sanctioned forums.
The move represents the party’s effort to reduce the number of debates and assert control over how they are staged.
In making the case for adopting the new rule, party officials repeatedly criticized the moderators and format of the 2012 primary debates, appealing to the suspicions that many Republican activists have about the mainstream news media.
“The liberal media doesn’t deserve to be in the driver’s seat,” said the committee’s chairman, Reince Priebus, addressing committee members here at their spring meeting.
Such rhetoric makes taking over the debates easier to sell to the committee’s more conservative members. But what party leaders are principally concerned about is reducing the number of debates to avoid a repeat of the 2012 campaign when a series of insurgent candidates used the forums –20 in all – to draw attention to their candidacies. Some party leaders say they believe that the number of debates pushed Mitt Romney to the right in a way that contributed to his loss to President Obama.
Party leaders want to tighten their grip on a presidential primary season they believe has grown unruly and too long. This year, the party moved to set the nominating calendar by scheduling the first four contests – Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada – for February, allowing other states to begin voting in March and holding winner-take-all primaries starting March 15.
Party officials are also moving to find a city that can accommodate a convention in late June, earlier than usual to give the party’s nominee a head start on raising money for the general election.
Taken together, these procedural steps could thwart an underfunded insurgent who needs the free exposure of televised debates and would be hurt by a series of rapid-fire contests in March that could be tilted toward an establishment-backed contender.
A few conservative stalwarts on the committee are nervous about the establishment’s consolidation of power over the primaries.
“Do we want a committee of the national committee, which will surely be controlled by the national chairman, picking which candidates participate in all Republican presidential debates?” asked Morton Blackwell, a committeeman from Virginia.
But that argument did not prevail. The move to take over the debates passed overwhelmingly, 152-7. Priebus and other top Republicans had considered even stiffer penalties for candidates who do not comply with the new rules, including stripping them of convention delegates.
Whether the candidates themselves agree to participate only in committee-approved debates is an open question. Priebus quietly informed many of the potential 2016 candidates of the party’s plan to run the debates and got positive feedback, according to Republicans familiar with the conversations.
Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, who is strongly considering a presidential run and is expected to receive tea party support if he does, offered careful praise for the move to limit debates. “I think maybe last time we had too many,” he said. “And so I think some of the rules changes, as long as they’re towards things that will enhance the party as a whole, are not a bad idea.”
One strategist to another potential hopeful suggested the vote amounted to a power grab.
“America, we hear you, so we’re putting our political party bosses in charge of debates,” Curt Anderson, an adviser to Gov. Bobby Jindal of Louisiana, said on Twitter. “If our candidates don’t obey, we will silence em!”
The committee tried to intervene in 2012 by proposing a series of monthly forums that would have doubled as party fundraisers. The idea fizzled in part because there was no enforcement mechanism and the candidates wanted to dictate their own debate strategy.
Top Republicans are more optimistic now.
“Because this is being done two years out, and because it has been vetted by many of the presidential candidates, the outcome is likely to be positive,” said Robert M. Duncan, a committeeman from Kentucky.