Any Republican who tries to challenge President Trump in the 2020 primaries will face significant hurdles to getting him on a debate stage.
The Republican National Committee is moving toward abolishing a standing committee on primary debates. A panel studying changes to the presidential nominating process — and working very much in lockstep with the Trump White House — recommended the move Thursday during the RNC spring meeting here at the Trump National Doral resort near Miami. A final vote is expected Friday.
Under an existing rule, a debate committee composed of 13 RNC members would have to convene at the national party’s summer meeting. The committee in the past was responsible for setting formats for debates and determining which media outlets could host them. In 2014, the rule carried a threat of penalties — disqualification from future debates, for example — for presidential candidates who participated in unsanctioned debates.
“We felt it was unnecessary,” RNC co-chair Bob Paduchik, who leads the presidential nominating process panel, told members at Thursday’s Rules Committee meeting.
The debate committee played an outsize role in 2016, when more than a dozen prominent Republicans ran for president and the party was eager to exercise more control over the networks that hosted and supplied moderators for the debates. The sanctions, in the minds of RNC officials, prevented an excessive number of debates. And with Trump in the White House and already aggressively raising money for reelection, they believe the rule has run its course.
The proposal “gets rid of the rule we had in place when we had 17 candidates running and didn’t have the White House,” Steve Duprey, the RNC committeeman from New Hampshire who chaired the standing committee on debates last cycle, told the Rules Committee.
But RNC committeeman Randy Evans of Georgia briefly raised concerns at the meeting that the national party might be ceding too much power back to the media by eliminating the debate committee. Paduchik assured him the RNC chair could at any time form an ad hoc debate panel.
The proposal then passed unanimously by a voice vote.
“Obviously this is intended to dissuade a primary challenge to the president,” Evans told BuzzFeed News in a brief interview after the Rules Committee adjourned. “I have no problem with that. But we need to make sure there are no unintended consequences.”
Ohio Gov. John Kasich and Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake are among Republicans who have expressed interest in a primary challenge, though neither has made any official plans. Both have spent time in New Hampshire, the nation’s first primary state, and Kasich has talked with prospective donors to gauge the feasibility of a primary or independent candidacy.
John Hammond, the RNC committeeman from Indiana who co-chairs the presidential nominating process committee, acknowledged to BuzzFeed News that debates would be necessary if Trump for whatever reason does not stand for reelection in 2020.
Chair Ronna McDaniel “has the authority to create a committee at any time on any topic under our general rules,” Hammond said. “Nothing that was made in the changes today removes her power to do that and to decide at that point how the RNC interfaces with the primary debate process.
“Just like everything else in this world, when unanticipated events occur, you want to have the flexibility and the power to maintain the opportunity to adjust to that.”