The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

RNC shakes up staff to calm GOP campaigns’ growing frustrations over debates

Donald Trump speaks as Marco Rubio, Ben Carson, Carly Fiorina, and Ted Cruz look on during the CNBC Republican presidential debate on Oct. 28 in Colorado. (Robyn Beck/Agence France-Presse via Getty Images)
Placeholder while article actions load

Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus decided late Sunday to shake up his senior staff in response to campaigns’ complaints about the party’s management of primary debates.

Priebus has elevated Sean Cairncross, the chief operating officer of the RNC and its former chief counsel, to be the GOP’s new lead debate negotiator and organizer.

The move effectively gives the debate responsibilities currently held by Sean Spicer, the RNC’s chief strategist and spokesman, to Cairncross. Spicer, a confidant of Priebus, will remain in his role but will work in a supplementary position when it comes to arranging the debates.

Priebus’s decision, which was detailed in an e-mail that RNC Chief of Staff Katie Walsh sent to campaigns Sunday before a private summit of aides to 2016 candidates, was shared by a Republican presidential campaign aide who spoke on the condition of anonymity to reveal the document. That gathering was held at a hotel in the Washington suburbs and attended by advisers to several campaigns.

[GOP campaigns vent at RNC on eve of debate summit]

The Republican National Committee dumps NBC News from sponsoring a Feb. 26 debate of GOP presidential candidates, after a debate conducted by media partner CNBC was roundly criticized by the candidates. Jillian Kitchener reports. (Video: Reuters)

When reached Sunday by phone, Spicer confirmed the e-mail and acknowledged that his job has been changed. He said he would hand over debate duties to his colleague and continue to support GOP campaigns as they attempt to broker changes with television network hosts.

“Last week was a debacle and we’re adding Sean, an experienced federal election attorney, to this team because of what happened,” Spicer said in an interview. “He has significant political relationships and will be a huge asset as we seek the best possible format for the candidates. He is going to take the leading role for the debates moving forward.”

Here is the text of the e-mail that Walsh sent to campaigns:

I know many of you have expressed some concern regarding how some of the details in the debate process have been handled to this point. While we believe most of the debate details have been handled well, I want you to know that at the RNC we have heard your concerns and take them very seriously. To that end we are making some changes to how we at the RNC will be handling the debate process going forward.
First, I have asked Sean Cairncross, Chief Operating Officer of the RNC and former Chief Counsel to take the central role in the debate process, specifically as it pertains to working with Sean Spicer and negotiating with the networks. They will also therefore be available to all the campaigns to discuss all of the details concerning those negotiations.
Second, from this point forward I will be assuming the role of lead point of contact for all of the campaigns as you interact with the RNC on debates. Of course, please feel free to reach out to Sean Cairncross, Sean Spicer or myself regarding any concerns or issues.
The RNC’s mission is to provide you with the best possible platform and stage to share your vision for America. We simply cannot have the disastrous process that happened in 2012 or a repeat of last week.
We know that at times getting such a historically large and strong field to agree on how to move forward can be a challenge, but it is one that we are proud to take on. We look forward to working with each of you moving forward to ensure we have the best possible debates and they propel us to victory in 2016.