The Republican National Committee released the party’s presidential candidates Friday to organize their own debates next month before the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary, a shift in policy that could increase the number of campaign showdowns and allow the highest polling candidates to limit access to their rivals.
The decision for the moment ends the party’s role in moderating the selection process for primary debates: setting the frequency of events, the qualification criteria and the moderators. Candidates were previously barred from debating outside the sanctioned events, but they are now free to appear in joint appearances whenever they choose in whatever combination they prefer.
“We have no RNC debates scheduled in January and any debates currently scheduled are not affiliated with the RNC,” the Republican Committee on Presidential Debates said in a statement Friday. “It is now time for Republican primary voters to decide who will be our next President and candidates are free to use any forum or format to communicate to voters as they see fit.”
Some news organizations, which had been anticipating the shift, have volunteered to host future events for the Republican candidates. CNN announced two events Thursday for candidates that receive at least 10 percent support in three qualifying national or state polls, a category that would currently limit the meetings to just two candidates, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and former United Nations ambassador Nikki Haley.
Former president Donald Trump, the current polling leader, would also qualify, but he has called for an end to all nomination debates and declared that the party should anoint him the nominee before Republican voters cast any nominating votes.
Chris LaCivita, an adviser to Trump, welcomed the news of RNC’s retreat. “Republicans know and have demonstrated repeatedly who they want to talk on Crooked Joe Biden. No amount of fake news kiddie debates featuring has-beens auditioning for first place loser is going to change that,” he said. “We are however glad the RNC has decided to move on.”
ABC News and WMUR, a New Hampshire affiliate, announced another debate in that state next month, just days before the CNN debate. Qualification requirements will be announced later. St. Anselm College, outside Manchester, N.H., was announced as the location of both the CNN and ABC News debates in that state.
Neil Levesque, executive director of the New Hampshire Institute of Politics and Political Library at St. Anselm College, said after the CNN announcement that the event with that network had not been “planned or booked.”
Chris Ager, chairman of the New Hampshire Republican Party, said Friday afternoon that he had not been contacted by CNN before or after their debate announcement.
“I believe it would be very difficult for any of the candidates to go with a CNN debate. … The Republican electorate doesn’t have the best view of CNN,” Ager said. “You never know, but I wouldn’t recommend it.”
A CNN spokesperson, Anna Beth Jager, said in a statement Friday that the network was “moving forward with our plans to host a debate in New Hampshire.”
DeSantis, meanwhile, has tweeted that he “looked forward” to the CNN debate in Iowa. The Haley campaign has not yet weighed in on what events she will attend.
The RNC, which has not said whether it will try to organize another nomination debate next year, has played a role in organizing the events since the 2016 election cycle, after two previous campaigns in which the number of presidential debates exploded, as news outlets and networks fought to secure events and the ratings they brought. But the first four party-organized debates this year have been far lower profile, given Trump’s refusal to participate.
Three of the four candidates on the last debate stage — DeSantis, businessman Vivek Ramaswamy and former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie — have at different points called for the RNC to allow them to debate each other at will, including in joint appearances on cable news network shows. The decision to release candidates from RNC rules effectively increases the negotiating position of DeSantis and Haley, the two people now vying for a second place spot in Iowa.
Meagan Vazquez contributed to this report.