Republicans are about to find out whether their strategy of engineering a “better” presidential primary debate will pay off.
Wednesday night’s GOP debates from Simi Valley, Calif. — undercard at 6 p.m., main event at 8 p.m. Eastern time — are the first that will be presented this year by a partnership of media organizations, an arrangement dictated by the Republican National Committee.
The debates will be carried by CNN and a second, lesser-known outfit, Salem Media Group, a radio and digital-news company based in Irving, Tex., that specializes in Christian and conservative-oriented programming. The odd-couple pairing is a result of the RNC’s condition that the TV networks airing its debates must do so in partnership with a conservative media organization and with the participation of conservative panelists.
In this case, that means Hugh Hewitt, a highly regarded talk-show host whose program is syndicated by Salem, will join CNN’s Jake Tapper and Dana Bash in questioning the candidates.
The goal of the RNC mandate: Eliminating or reducing suspected liberal bias in debate questions, along with the kinds of exchanges that made some Republicans wince during the last election cycle.
Party officials weren’t pleased, for example, when CNN anchor John King began a Republican debate in January 2012 by asking Newt Gingrich about his ex-wife’s claim that he had once asked her for “an open marriage,” or by ABC News anchor George Stephanopoulos’s repeated questions about contraception during another debate that month. They also didn’t appreciate former CNN anchor Candy Crowley’s fact-checking and interrupting Mitt Romney during one of the presidential debates later that year.
So this time, the RNC required “a conservative element” in the debate productions, as RNC spokeswoman Allison Moore put it, compelling the TV networks to find new dance partners. As a result, ABC News, which is televising a debate on Feb. 6, has aligned with the conservative news site IJReview. NBC and Telemundo are teaming with the National Review, the venerable conservative journal, for a debate on Feb. 26. (CNBC and CBS haven’t named partners yet for the debates they’ll carry on Oct. 28 and Feb. 13, respectively.)
The major exception so far has been Fox News, which televised the Aug. 6 debate without a partner, and is scheduled to air another one solo in January. While Fox has a strong affinity with conservative viewers, the network said it fought the RNC’s partner requirement and ultimately prevailed.
“As a news operation, we were not comfortable with relinquishing any level of control over the editorial process of the debate,” said Michael Clemente, Fox’s executive vice president of news. “We fought back on that stipulation and stood our ground. As we have showed time and again, we are extremely capable of putting on a tough and fair debate.”
The RNC has tried to use its valuable debate rights as leverage over the networks before; in 2013, the committee unanimously passed a resolution that barred CNN and NBC from hosting debates if they didn’t drop TV projects about Hillary Rodham Clinton before the 2016 election. The networks scrapped those plans, but they said the decision to do so was not in response to the RNC resolution.
The media partners in Wednesday’s debates from the Ronald Reagan Library each asserted their independence and said there would be no compromises in their approach to the candidates.
Tapper, who will moderate the two discussions, said in an interview that he and his fellow panelists will seek to foster maximum interaction among the Republican field.
“There are lots of tough interview questions you could ask, and lots of [policy] questions, but it’s not an interview,” he said. “I’m looking for debate questions — tell me the ways in which you disagree with your opponents, and explain why you’re right and they’re wrong. Why is your policy or leadership style or temperament” better suited than your opponents’?
“This isn’t about me,” Tapper added. “It’s about Governor X debating Senator Y. They’re not running for prom queen.”
Hewitt, a constitutional law professor and avowed Republican, has proven to be an adept and rigorous questioner of the candidates on his radio program. His interview with Republican front-runner Donald Trump in early September made worldwide headlines when Trump had trouble distinguishing between the Iraqi Kurds and the Iranian Quds military brigade. (Trump said he misunderstood the question, and later denounced Hewitt on MSNBC as “a third-rate radio announcer.”)
CNN’s discussions about a debate partnership with Salem — which syndicates Hewitt to more than 100 stations — predated the RNC’s mandate to the networks, said Sam Feist, CNN’s Washington bureau chief. Salem’s involvement can only help, he said, since the company will carry the debate to listeners not reached by CNN (or CNN Español and CNN International, which are also airing the forum). At least some of these listeners will switch over to CNN during the course of the debates, he said.
Tom Tradup, Salem’s vice president of news and talk programming, said it was unlikely that the RNC’s partnership strategy would materially change the thrust of the debates.
“I don’t think you ever know what you’re going to get until the red light comes on the camera,” he said. “But I don’t think journalists like Jake Tapper or Dana Bash or someone with the intellect of Hugh Hewitt will be throwing RNC talking points at the candidates.”