Mark J. Terrill / AP

Republican Party suspends partnership with NBC News for February debate

Analysis: Move comes with candidates threatening to exclude RNC from organizing future events

With GOP presidential campaigns planning a Sunday meeting in Washington, D.C. to discuss how to wrest control of the primary debates from the Republican National Committee, RNC Chairman Reince Priebus announced Friday that his party was “suspending the partnership with NBC News” for a Feb. 26 debate scheduled in Houston.

“We simply cannot continue with NBC without full consultation with our campaigns,” Priebus wrote in a letter to NBC News Chairman Andrew Lack.

CNBC’s handling of Wednesday’s showdown between GOP presidential hopefuls was widely panned, both during and after the debate, by candidates and commentators. Priebus himself tweeted that night that “CNBC should be ashamed of how this debate was handled,” and followed with more criticism in a statement and on a variety of news shows.

But as much as individual campaigns have voiced displeasure with CNBC, they have also made clear that the RNC bears some of the responsibility for what they saw as a poorly run debate. That tension went public Thursday when Politico reported that the campaigns of frontrunners Donald Trump and Ben Carson, along with those of Lindsey Graham and Bobby Jindal — two candidates excluded from the main debate — had called for a discussion of future debate rules that pointedly excluded any representatives from the RNC.

“I think the campaigns have a number of concerns and they have a right to talk about that amongst themselves,” Christian Ferry, Graham’s campaign manager, told Politico.

According to NBC, 10 campaigns have signed on to the Sunday meeting.

The candidates began criticizing the media, and specifically CNBC, even before Wednesday night’s debate began. “I am now in Colorado looking forward to what I am sure will be a very unfair debate!" tweeted Trump Wednesday morning.

Trump, Sen. Marco Rubio and Sen. Ted Cruz all picked up the thread during the debate, with Cruz scoring perhaps the most shared moment of the debate with his direct attack: “The questions asked in this debate illustrate why the American people don't trust the media.”

The attack on the media has apparently played well for candidates — with critiques of the moderators packaged with plenty of airtime and page space for the candidates and their surrogates — but they are hardly original to this campaign. From Newt Gingrich in 2012 or Ronald Regan in 1980, dating all the way back to Thomas Jefferson over 200 years ago, U.S. politicians have garnered time, attention and improved poll numbers by blaming the messenger.

Today’s specific criticism from the RNC echoed post-debate complaints from several campaigns. Priebus said CNBC had shown “bad faith” in not allowing candidates adequate time to answer questions on “economic of financial matters,” in asking “inaccurate or downright offensive questions” and engaging in “a series of ‘gotcha’ questions ... designed to embarrass our candidates.”

But it is a criticism that leaves some scratching their heads. For instance, Cruz’s hallmark tirade from Wednesday came in response to a question about whether the Texas senator would oppose the federal budget compromise up for a vote in Congress.

Even conservative author Ann Coulter, rarely seen as a defender of networks like NBC, thought the night’s complaints were overblown. “GOP's media bashing is getting boring. CNBC Qs not measurably different from CNN or FNC,” she tweeted Wednesday night.

NBC News, for its part, called the RNC move “a disappointing development.” In a statement, NBC Senior Vice President of Communications Ali Zelenko said the network and its broadcast partners at Telemundo (a co-sponsor of the February debate) would “work in good faith to resolve this matter with the Republican Party.”

How the network and the party come to that resolution is likely dependent on several factors. It remains an open question whether the RNC move will satisfy the campaigns, or whether the candidates will continue to try to cut out the party establishment from decisions about the number and format of future debates. It is also possible that the criticism of CNBC has as much to do with its corporate partners, most notably MSNBC, widely perceived by GOP loyalists as biased in favor of Democrats.

Perhaps as a hint to that end, the RNC statement noted: “While we are suspending our partnership with NBC News and its properties, we still fully intend to have a debate on that day, and will ensure that National Review remains part of it.”

Whether restricting debates to those organized by conservative media outlets will be enough to keep the GOP presidential campaigns from fully excluding Priebus and the RNC from the process remains to be seen, as does whether candidates running for national office will be satisfied in the end with the reach of those outlets.

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