- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 8, 2014


MEMPHIS, Tenn. — While Republicans talked publicly about gaining more control over their presidential debates, a panel of Republican National Committee members conferred in secret for months to create rules and penalties that would ensure 2016 candidates toed the line, according to interviews and internal emails reviewed by The Washington Times.

The penalties included stripping delegates from candidates who participated in unauthorized primary debates, a notion that created instant concern among RNC members who learned of the secret plans, the interviews and documents show.

RNC Chairman Reince Priebus has long wanted to break what he called the broadcast networks’ stranglehold over who gets to ask the questions at nationally televised GOP nomination debates: network reporters whom Republicans view as liberal, or questioners who are not as hostile to conservative philosophy.

What remained withheld from the 168-member RNC was the fact that some time ago Mr. Priebus quietly appointed a nine-member committee that included himself, and the panel began devising rules to govern the 2016 primary season.

That committee proposed that a candidate who participates in an early, unsanctioned debate be stripped of all delegates that candidate wins in primary contests held before Feb. 1, 2016. If a candidate joins an unsanctioned debate after March 1, the RNC would remove all the delegates that candidate wins in the seven days after the violation.

The details of the penalties proposed by the secret committee are listed in an April 24 email sent on behalf of RNC General Counsel John Ryder and in-house RNC Counsel John Phillippe. Other emails reviewed by The Times detail conversations leading to the formations of the plans.

“All, as a follow-up to this morning’s call, we would ask you to focus on and think some more about the delegate penalty rule. Any delegate that would otherwise be awarded to a candidate not eligible to receive such a delegate due to operation of this rule will not be allocated to any candidate. If any vacancy results, it shall be filled in accordance with the rules and procedures in place in for filling of vacancies in that state,” one such email states.

“Imposition of delegate penalties will be very tricky for a number of reasons, including the variety of methods used by states to allocate and to select delegates. If you think of any problems with the language above or of ways to improve it, please let us know,” another email states.

One of the Republicans Mr. Priebus appointed to the secret committee is Georgia RNC member Randy Evans, who is a close friend and legal counsel to former House Speaker Newt Gingrich.

Over lunch Thursday in Memphis, Mr. Evans confirmed to The Times that there was an effort to quietly assemble the plan and that some participants wanted to submit the penalties for debate rules violators at the RNC August meeting.

“This rule is a step in the direction of a solution,” Mr. Evans said. “This is about control. The media control the moderators, the dates and times, topics and questions.”

During his lunch conversation, Mr. Evans discussed the committee’s work, members and conclusions openly. A few hours later after The Times contacted RNC officials for comment, though, Mr. Evans emailed The Times back to suggest what had happened should not be considered a secret committee but rather a more informal process.

Reince never appointed me to a secret committee,” Mr. Evans wrote in a email to The Times. “As a pro-Debate member of the Rules Committee, I have been consulted as many others have — but there was no secret committee.”

When contacted about The Times’ plan to report about the existence and work of the secret committee, Mr. Priebus‘ spokesman, Sean Spicer, emailed back: “All good.”

The committee was heavy with — but not exclusively made up of — establishment Republicans.

The seven members who joined Mr. Priebus and Mr. Evans on the panel were RNC General Counsel John Ryder; Bruce Ash of Arizona; Steve Duprey of New Hampshire; former Mitt Romney adviser Ron Kaufman of Massachusetts; Ralph Reed’s Georgia Faith and Freedom Coalition President Steve Scheffler; former Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour’s nephew Henry Barbour; and U.S. Rep. Steve King of Iowa.

Mr. Priebus was Wisconsin GOP chairman before winning election as RNC chairman.

The secrecy surrounding the effort alienated Republicans who found out about it, prompting some to complain that the exercise was simply an effort by Mr. Priebus to usurp more power.

Mr. Priebus instructed the secret committee he created to withhold that penalties plan until the next RNC meeting in August, according to the interviews and documents.

But the RNC Standing Rules Committee, without acknowledging the secret committee, has stepped in to form a 12-member subcommittee empowered to deal with debate-rules penalties in a more open way.

The plan that was submitted and approved Thursday calls for the establishment of a debate rules committee made up of a man and a woman elected from each of the four regions of the country — a total of eight — plus five chosen by Mr. Priebus.

That would put Mr. Priebus, who has enjoyed the support of conservatives on the RNC, on the side of the establishment that always favors a top-down approach to party governance.

Members said they thought Mr. Priebus was doing what people at the top of any organization tend to do: accrue power because they trust themselves to do the right thing, even when they believe they favor bottom-up politics.

Mr. Ryder, the RNC general counsel, reiterated Mr. Priebus‘ complaint about TV networks, saying a recent poll shows that 93 percent of journalists are not Republicans.