N.H. Republicans ask Fox News, RNC to change debate criteria

Last modified: 6/11/2015 1:36:35 PM
Early yesterday morning, dozens of top New Hampshire Republicans sent a message to the Republican National Committee and Fox News: Don’t keep good candidates off of the debate stage.

Specifically, the group took issue with the network’s plans to limit participation in its Aug. 6 presidential debate in Cleveland to the top 10 Republican candidates as determined by the averages of the five most recent national polls.

By the end of the night, the network had issued an update to its plans: The same day of its debate, Fox also plans to broadcast a 90-minute “candidate forum” for those who might not qualify for the debate itself. To qualify for the forum, though, candidates must still “score 1% or higher in an average of the five most recent national polls” as recognized by the network.

Fox’s candidate forum will air live at 1 p.m., and the debate will air later at 9 p.m.

And in a move that will perhaps make Aug. 6 an even busier one for followers of Republican presidential politics, the New Hampshire Union Leader announced plans to host its own forum for Republican presidential candidates. That forum, according to an article published on the paper’s website last night, will air nationally on C-SPAN’s television and radio networks on the same day as Fox’s segments. According to the same article, the criteria for the Union Leader forum “will include such things as established campaigns and staffing.”

‘A real threat’

Fox News did not say whether its newly announced forum was influenced by the letter from New Hampshire Republicans, but it had previously signaled plans to provide coverage to candidates who weren’t included in its debate. Union Leader publisher Joseph McQuaid said the newspaper was already weighing the possibility of hosting a candidate forum before the letter was sent.

“What Fox is attempting to do, and is actually bragging about doing, is a real threat to the first-in-the-nation primary,” McQuaid said, according to the Union Leader story. “Fox boasts that it will ‘winnow’ the field of candidates before New Hampshire gets to do so. That isn’t just bad for New Hampshire, it’s bad for the presidential selection process by limiting the field to only the best-known few with the biggest bankrolls. Why the RNC and, especially, its New Hampshire representative, Steve Duprey, would defend this and be a party to it is baffling.”

In a letter released yesterday morning, some 56 current and former lawmakers and activists – including former governors Craig Benson and Stephen Merrill, Executive Councilor Chris Sununu, Senate Majority Leader Jeb Bradley and Senate President Chuck Morse – argued that Fox’s proposed debate criteria is too limiting and risks robbing otherwise qualified candidates from having an equal shot to appeal to voters.

The letter was organized by Jamie Burnett and James Sununu, Republican strategists who are partners for the New Hampshire-based Profile Strategy Group. Burnett said neither he nor James Sununu are working for or have endorsed a candidate in this year’s primary. The letter, Burnett said, grew out of frustrations the pair heard repeatedly in New Hampshire Republican circles after the initial debate criteria was announced last month.

Fox News is set to host the first Republican debate of the presidential primary cycle in August. Eight more are scheduled for 2015 and early 2016, including one for Feb. 6 at Saint Anselm College’s New Hampshire Institute of Politics. Several additional debates are still being finalized, according to a memo released by the Republican National Committee earlier this month.

Networks hold the power

The national party offers suggestions on how to approach the debates, but the format is ultimately for the networks to decide, according to debate committee Chairman Steve Duprey, who serves as New Hampshire’s RNC committeeman.

The RNC’s “media partners made it clear that they, as the holders of the FCC licenses, got to make the decision on criteria. Further, there are legitimate concerns that if the RNC set the criteria, that would create an illegal campaign contribution to those who our criteria allowed in to a debate,” Duprey wrote in an email. “Imagine if the Monitor held a debate and we told them the RNC was going to determine who got to participate!”

The New Hampshire Republicans behind this week’s letter urged the network and the national party to revise the criteria to give voters a chance “to hear from a more diverse and inclusive group of candidates who have filed to run for president.” Currently, 10 top Republicans have declared their candidacy, with others expected to join in, including Jeb Bush next week.

“It is understandable that a large field presents logistical and broadcast challenges, and that Fox News is seeking to provide a forum in which candidates can be provided enough time to substantively communicate on the issues,” the letter reads. “However, the proposed limitations are unnecessarily narrow and risk eliminating potentially viable candidates based on unreliable national polling that is rarely predictive of primary election outcomes.”

Suggested alternatives

The New Hampshire group also offered up some suggestions for an alternative format: Split the debate into two back-to-back panels to be held either on the same night or over two nights; take the top six candidates based on public polls and randomly draw three to appear on each panel, and split the remaining candidates between the two sessions.

Duprey said the suggestion is worth considering, but it’s also important to consider how viewership might decline during the second of those two debates. In any case, Duprey said he would encourage the New Hampshire Republicans who submitted their feedback to Fox to also weigh in with the rest of the participating networks.

“In a perfect world, I would have a major debate that had all 16 candidates on stage and all of America would watch all of it for the duration,” Duprey said. “But there isn’t a perfect world.”

Duprey said the RNC will keep having “ongoing discussions with all of our media partners in an effort to make these as inclusive as possible and we can expect to see adjustments in formulas and formats going forward.”

Burnett said he’s not sure whether the group will send the letter directly to the remaining networks, but noted that it was released publicly as an open letter, giving others the chance to consider the concerns. He also plans to make sure people in other early contest states – Iowa, South Carolina and Nevada – are also aware of the letter. If the debates move toward a format that relies increasingly on national polling, Burnett says, that risks undermining the process that has for years played out in these early states.

“It eliminates people’s ability to get on the ground here and in Iowa and other states and do the job they need to do to be part of the conversation,” Burnett said. “If that’s not what the RNC, Fox News or CNN think is important, then I think they’re looking to dramatically change and nationalize the primary process, and that would be really unfortunate.”

Candidates weigh in

Some candidates have also spoken out on the debate format. Ben Carson, a prominent neurosurgeon seeking the Republican nomination, sent a letter to the RNC at the end of May saying he was “very worried that out of broadcasting convenience our party is about to exclude voices from our debate programs that are critical to making our party bigger, better, and bolder.” Carly Fiorina, the former Hewlett-Packard CEO and another Republican nominee, has taken a more optimistic tack. After Fox announced its criteria, her campaign sent out a fundraising email proclaiming: “I’ll skip straight to the point: I look forward to participating in the Fox News debate.” She also asked supporters to chip in money to help build more momentum.

“The career politicians have a big head start,” Fiorina said in the campaign email. “I need the resources necessary to broadcast my message to more Republicans.”

Republicans aren’t the only ones engaging in a debate over the debates. Sen. Bernie Sanders, an independent from Vermont who is seeking the Democratic nomination, has also called for earlier and more frequent presidential debates – and for debates that include candidates from both parties during the primary process.



(Casey McDermott can be reached at 369-3306 or cmcdermott@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @caseymcdermott.)




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