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Republicans threaten to block candidate participation in presidential debates

The Republican Party expressed its grievances with the Committee on Presidential Debates in a letter demanding reforms be made in time for the 2024 election or GOP candidates will no longer participate.

WASHINGTON (CN) — The Republican National Committee on Thursday sent a letter to the Committee on Presidential Debates threatening to prohibit GOP nominees from participating in future debates.

RNC Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel said in a tweet that the committee, known as the CPD, has shown bias against Republicans for years, but the party's muckraking has intensified since former President Donald Trump became its standard-bearer.

McDaniel's letter requests for several reforms to be made by the CPD in order to restore trust in the debate process.

"The RNC has a duty to ensure that its future presidential nominees have the opportunity to debate their opponents on a level playing field," she wrote. "So long as the CPD appears intent on stonewalling the meaningful reforms necessary to restore its credibility with the Republican Party as a fair and nonpartisan actor, the RNC will take every step to ensure that future Republican presidential nominees are given that opportunity elsewhere."

One of the major issues expressed in the letter is the CPD hosting the first presidential debate before early voting begins. During the 2020 election, many states expanded early voting due to the coronavirus pandemic and more than 1 million ballots had already been cast before the first presidential debate.

After the first debate that September, the CPD received tremendous backlash from the public due to Trump and Democratic nominee Joe Biden interrupting each other several times throughout the debate. The CPD responded by stating it would add "additional structure" to the format of debates to ensure a more organized discussion of the issues.

The second presidential debate – which was the final debate after a previous one had been canceled – resulted in more frustration from the Republican Party, as Trump's campaign manager Bill Stepien wrote to the CPD accusing organizers of omitting the topic of foreign policy, which he said was agreed upon months prior.

McDaniel addressed this in her letter, asking the CPD to stop "making unilateral changes to previously agreed-upon debate formats and conditions, in some cases without even notifying the candidates."

The letter also demands reforms for choosing moderators after Trump accused both 2020 debate moderators of being biased against him. That includes Chris Wallace from Fox News, who repeatedly fact-checked Trump's claims about Covid-19 during an interview that summer, and Kristen Welker from NBC News, who Trump referred to as a "fake news reporter" for her family's past endorsements of Democratic candidates, although she has not been affiliated with any party since 2012.

McDaniel called on the CPD to "establish transparent criteria for selecting debate moderators that would disqualify individuals from consideration who have apparent conflicts of interest due to personal, professional, or partisan factors." The RNC also seeks "a transparent code of conduct for moderators in conducting debates, including guidelines for appropriate interactions with the participating nominees, with meaningful penalties for violations."

The CPD, which has sponsored all of the presidential debates since 1988, is led by two co-chairmen – Kenneth Wollack, former president of the National Democratic Institute, and Frank J. Fahrenkopf Jr., who was RNC chairman from 1983 to 1989.

Despite Trump's 2016 claims of the commission being "rigged," the CPD states the members of its board of directors, consisting of Democrats and Republicans, are chosen for their "individual and collective experience in public service, media and education." They include former Republican U.S. Senators John Danforth and Olympia Snowe, former Democratic Congresswoman Jane Harman, former Time Warner CEO Richard Parson and former ABC "World News" anchor Charles Gibson.

Despite membership from both sides of the aisle, McDaniel's letter attacks the CPD for "failing to maintain the organization's strict nonpartisanship, with a majority of its board members publicly disparaging the Republican nominee," and demands they impose term limits for directors and impose a code of conduct for their public commentary on candidates and engagement in political activity.

The commission defended its plans for the next election in a statement.

"The CPD's plans for 2024 will be based on fairness, neutrality and a firm commitment to help the American public learn about the candidates and the issues," it said.

The RNC letter expresses deep concern that reform efforts are being delayed and won't occur until after 2024 election.

One of the reform suggestions, which asks for a representative from parties that have participated in
past debates to observe CPD board meetings, was already dismissed by the CPD out of concern this change would jeopardize its nonpartisanship.

“We take the RNC’s observations and suggestions seriously and, as we have said previously, we will give them careful consideration,” the commission wrote the RNC in December.

According to McDaniel's response letter, if reforms aren't made, "The RNC will initiate the process of amending the rules of the Republican Party at our upcoming winter meeting to prohibit future Republican nominees from participating in CPD-sponsored debates."

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