Republicans keep having propagandists moderate their debates

Image of Republican elephant logo behind lectern

Citation Andrea Austria / Media Matters

When Republican National Committee Chair Ronna McDaniel announced in April that the GOP would no longer participate in debates sponsored by the Commission on Presidential Debates, she said that her party was committed to identifying “newer, better debate platforms” to replace “the biased CPD.” For a glimpse of what they may be after, look no further than the motley collection of right-wing election deniers, anti-vaxxers, and conspiracy theorists selected to moderate recent Republican primary debates.

Right-wing commentators spend a lot of time complaining about purported liberal media bias, using regular salvos to work the refs and make excuses for their failures. Those complaints typically crescendoed every four years with the presidential debates. Republican politicians and conservative media figures would rage about the purported unfairness of the CPD-selected moderators, even as the party’s Fox News propaganda arm maintained a slot in the moderator rotation

Debates for down-ballot races are generally more sedate affairs, typically moderated by anchors or reporters from local television affiliates, public radio stations, or print outlets. But this year, GOP primary candidates have also turned to national right-wing outlets, talk radio hosts, and fringe pundits.

Newsmax, a far-right cable network which infamously tried to seize market share from Fox by going all-in on then-President Donald Trump’s lie that the 2020 election had been stolen from him and currently faces lawsuits from multiple election technology companies in connection with that fraudulent reporting, has already hosted at least two high-profile Republican primary debates this cycle.  

Eric Bolling moderated a New York gubernatorial primary debate for the network in June. Bolling, a former host for Fox and Sinclair Media Group, is a notorious bigot who lost his Fox gig after reportedly sending an unsolicited and unwanted photo of male genitalia to at least three female colleagues. He emerged in recent years as a key vector of conspiracy theories about COVID-19 vaccines who also regularly spread lies about purported fraud in the 2020 election. 

Greta Van Susteren, who previously hosted shows at MSNBC, Fox, and CNN before joining Newsmax in May, also moderated a Pennsylvania GOP Senate debate that month. 

Mark Levin, who hosts a weekly TV show for Fox, a streaming show for BlazeTV, and one of the right’s most popular syndicated talk radio broadcasts, will moderate two congressional primary debates in Florida this month. Levin, who was selected by the Republican Party of Florida, apparently helped mastermind the Trump plot to illegally reject electors from key states that supported Joe Biden and thus subvert the election to keep Trump in office and has a long record of bigoted commentary.

“I have Mark Levin that's going to moderate those. Obviously, he's a great guy, very smart," Gov. Ron DeSantis said at a press conference about the events. DeSantis touted Levin’s support on his campaign website when he first ran for governor in 2018.

While Levin and Newsmax have national presences, in other cases, debate organizers have turned to lower-profile right-wing figures from the area. In Wisconsin, three GOP candidates for governor participated in a debate moderated by local right-wing radio host Joe Giganti last month. 

These events don’t always accomplish their intent of promoting the candidates without the sinister involvement of the “liberal media.” Lara Logan, a former CBS News correspondent-turned-Fox-personality, toured the internet fever swamps this year touting an array of increasingly bonkers conspiracy theories. She also moderated a GOP primary debate for a Texas congressional race in February, and while her questions were firmly embedded in far-right talking points, she drew criticism from viewers for her rambling, discursive monologues.

Here is one of Logan’s questions from that debate:

LARA LOGAN (MODERATOR): So speaking of the right to privacy and the Fourth Amendment, it didn't just – it wasn't just written for search and seizure in the Patriot Act. It was written also because what did the British do? They quartered in people's homes and they took everything from them and they prevented them from meeting and they prevented them from organizing and they prevented them from communicating. And what is happening in this country today, if you went to the Capitol on January 6, you can't even have a bank account in certain places in this country. And what that leads us into very neatly as well is Big Tech, you know? You know what happens? Everybody says, “Oh, we don't support Big Tech. We don't support Section 230 liability,” and yet we don't see anything change. Ted Cruz, he goes up there, he makes these grand speeches and they have fabulous. And you know what changes? Nothing. So I want to know how many of you have taken money from Google or Facebook or Twitter or any of them, if you would take money from any of them if they offered it to you? A lot of it because that's how they roll. And also, what would you do to break up these monopolies? Strip them of their Section 230 protections and stop the people in this audience and all over this country every single day being censored, every single day, because it is happening on a scale that is unimaginable and underreported. And the order for that is a high order crash. Are you sure? Twice in a row. Christian just. He just went first. Morgan, it's you first.

And sometimes the events fail to materialize. In Pennsylvania, four GOP gubernatorial candidates signed a letter to “the Pennsylvania press” demanding a Republican debate moderator. While they skipped a debate when such a moderator was not provided, they all ultimately folded and participated in at least one subsequent forum

It’s hard to identify where Republicans might draw a line against having total loons moderating their debates. Last week, Jim Hoft published a press release on his Gateway Pundit website inviting the four leading candidates for the GOP nomination for U.S. Senate in Missouri to participate in a July 11 debate moderated by himself and Real America’s Voice host Gina Loudon. 

It’s difficult to imagine that this will come together. Hoft is a far-right conspiracy theorist who is also perhaps the dumbest man on the internet, while Loudon is a charlatan and her outlet has provided a home for QAnon conspiracy theory content. And yet, given the trajectory of the GOP’s moderators, it’s not unthinkable.

There’s long been an incestuous relationship between the Republican Party and the right-wing media. GOP candidates try to stand out from their peers in hopes of attracting attention from the dominant players in the conservative echo chamber and ride that wave to victory. The most successful candidates were often those who sounded most like right-wing media figures – or those who actually were former right-wing media figures themselves.

Now GOP candidates aren’t just preening for the attention of propagandists like Levin and kooks like Logan – those are the people the party wants moderating its debates.