Picture this: It’s summer, and Republican presidential hopefuls are gathered on stage for their first 2024 presidential primary debate. Who’s moderating? The most unlikely of duos: CNN’s Anderson Cooper and Newsmax’s Greg Kelly.
It’s not an impossible scenario, according to a pair of recent reports about the Republican National Committee’s plans for the 2024 presidential primary debates. On Wednesday, as the RNC met to discuss what form the first debate will take, Semafor reported that the committee “is considering pairing mainstream outlets with conservative outlets as co-moderators, a regular feature of 2016 debates as well, to address member concerns about bias.” Semafor editor in chief Ben Smith half-jokingly imagined the possibilities on Twitter: “Looking forward to the Breitbart/NBC News debate.”
The move follows last week’s New York Times report on talks between RNC officials and television networks—including CNN—about sponsoring a primary debate. “Party officials are also in talks with executives from ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox News, along with more-niche networks like Newsmax and NewsNation,” according to the Times, which noted that networks are expected to present proposals in February. “We cast a broad net to engage with interested and qualified organizations, though not every entity who submits a proposal will receive a debate,” RNC Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel told the Times. The RNC’s proposal request—which Semafor described as a “first of its kind” on Wednesday—includes “a section for networks to fill out that dives into whether they’d be open to partnerships.”
The early talks follow the GOP’s underwhelming 2022 midterm performance, as both the Times and Semafor note. It was a look-in-the-mirror moment for Republicans on multiple fronts, including messaging, because while some Republicans who iced out mainstream media found success (Florida governor Ron DeSantis), others lost badly (Pennsylvania state Senator Doug Mastriano). “There are plenty of Republicans who consume their news just from the major networks,” David Bossie, the chairman of the GOP’s presidential debates committee—who, along with McDaniel, is leading the conversations with TV executives—told the Times. Bossie also noted that Republicans remain “incredibly skeptical that our presidential candidates can get a fair shake from what we consider the biased mainstream media.”
It’s a talking point that the RNC bandied heavily last spring, when, after months of threatening to blow up the presidential debate process, they “voted unanimously” to withdraw from the Commission on Presidential Debates, the nonpartisan organization that has hosted general-election debates for more than three decades. At the time, McDaniel accused the CPD of being “biased,” saying in a statement that the party was “going to find newer, better debate platforms.” The RNC has since continued to boycott the commission, which, the Times notes, does not participate in primary debates.
In any case, it’s hard to imagine that every Republican candidate will be open to the potential partnerships the RNC is reportedly discussing, especially when the 2024 field is still hazy. Donald Trump, who has been attacking the news media for years, is thus far the only Republican who has announced he’s running in 2024, though a number of high-profile figures are seen as likely candidates, including DeSantis. The Florida governor, as the Times’ Michael Grynbaum wrote earlier this month, took Trump’s media-bashing playbook to a new level in his reelection campaign last year by avoiding nonpartisan news outlets altogether, giving extensive interviews only with those on the right. Still, it’s hardly clear that DeSantis’s approach will work on a national level. “Going back to 2016, Trump was at his most effective when he was anti-media but would nevertheless talk to anybody,” as Alex Conant, a former aide to Florida senator Marco Rubio, told the Times. Trump in 2016 “was getting his message out on CNN and MSNBC every day, even though part of his message was that the media is terrible.”