Fourth GOP Debate Left Out the MSM. Republicans Say That's a Good Thing.

Moderators from conservative and independent media helped drive debate on transgender issues, one operative says

Eliana Johnson, Megyn Kelly, Elizabeth Vargas (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
December 7, 2023

Wednesday night's Republican presidential debate was the fourth of the year. But it was the first to feature moderators from outside of mainstream media—a move that brought fresh questions on important issues for GOP voters, campaign operatives told the Washington Free Beacon.

Free Beacon editor in chief Eliana Johnson moderated the debate alongside SiriusXM's Megyn Kelly and NewsNation's Elizabeth Vargas. The inclusion of conservative media figures over their mainstream alternatives—NBC, for example, hosted the third debate last month—brought a "credibility factor to ask those tough questions," Alabama GOP chairman John Wahl told the Free Beacon.

"I think if we're going to get competition to the mainstream media, which Republicans very much support, it's going to take throwing … some of the opportunities to [conservative] networks," Wahl said. "So in that regard I think it was very smart by the [Republican National Committee]. I support it." Asked if he expected to see the committee take a similar approach in future debates, Wahl said, "I think the answer is yes."

Ron DeSantis campaign official Andrew Romeo, meanwhile, said the RNC's decision to partner with outlets outside the mainstream led to questions on transgenderism and other issues that left-wing networks treat with contempt.

"Having a conservative debate like that to bring that issue out was important," Romeo told the Free Beacon.

The RNC in the buildup to the primary said it would move away from the "same old" outlet partners in favor of conservative alternatives, an attempt to build "conservative media up." Instead, the committee partnered with Univision for the second debate and NBC for the third, prompting right-wing criticism.

That changed last month, when the RNC announced its partners for the fourth debate. The Free Beacon's debate partnership with Kelly and NewsNation, Johnson said in a Nov. 9 statement, aimed to "offer the candidates a debate platform outside of the mainstream media echo chamber and to give Republican primary voters a debate where conservative ideas and values will be the terrain and not the target."

For Mark Harris, who leads a super PAC supporting former U.N. ambassador Nikki Haley, that effort was a successful one.

"I thought all the moderators did a great job … bringing to the fore, you know, the major issues from a Republican primary voter perspective," Harris said. "Clearly a lot of Republicans and Republican primary voters read the Free Beacon. … So I think it's a great opportunity to reach more voters."

Chris Christie campaign adviser Doug Mayer echoed Harris's rhetoric, calling the Free Beacon's participation in the debate "healthy."

"I think it's great," Mayer said. "I think mainstream media—it's an old term. … I think conservative outlets like NewsNation and the Free Beacon are playing a bigger role. And I think that's healthy."

Alec Schemmel and Meghan Blonder contributed to this report.