RNC warns candidates that attending Iowa Christian group’s forum will disqualify them from debates

Nov 11, 2023, 5:30 AM

Former President Donald Trump, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, e...

Former President Donald Trump, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy and Sen. Tim Scott were invited to the Family Leader's "Thanksgiving Family Forum." (Getty Images)

(Getty Images)

Originally Published: 10 NOV 23 19:46 ET
Updated: 10 NOV 23 21:41 ET

Editor’s note: CNN’s Jeff Zeleny contributed to this report.

(CNN) — The Republican National Committee has warned some of the 2024 GOP presidential candidates about attending an Iowa Christian organization’s Thanksgiving forum, saying it would disqualify them from participating in future RNC presidential debates.

Five candidates – former President Donald Trump, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy and South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott – were invited to the Family Leader’s “Thanksgiving Family Forum” on November 17.

“It has come to the attention of the RNC Counsel’s Office that several Republican presidential candidates have been invited to participate in an open-press event in Iowa in November at which they would ‘gather around the table to have a moderated, friendly, and open discussion about the issues.’ In other words, a debate,” the RNC counsel’s office said in a letter obtained by CNN.

“Accordingly, please be advised that any Republican presidential candidate who participates in this or other similar events will be deemed to have violated this pledge and will be disqualified from taking part in any future RNC-sanctioned presidential primary debates,” the office said.

In its letter, dated October 28, the office reminded the candidates that they had agreed not to participate in any non-RNC-sanctioned debates during the campaign.

RealClearPolitics first reported on the letter.

The Family Leader plans to move forward with the event, despite the RNC’s warning.

“We do not agree that our Forum fits within the RNC’s ‘debate’ restriction,” Drew Zahn, a spokesperson for the group, said in a statement, noting that the Family Leader held the same event during the 2012 and 2016 election cycles.

“So we know from experience our event can be a win-win addition to the election process without in any way competing with the RNC’s debates. It’s just a completely different format and kind of event,” Zahn said.

DeSantis, Scott and Ramaswamy have RSVP’d for the event, according to Zahn.

DeSantis said Friday that he would attend the event, despite the RNC’s warning. “I’m gonna be there at the Family Leader. I think it’s an important part of this process. It’s been a part of this process for a long time. There’s no way that should cause the RNC to penalize any candidate,” DeSantis told reporters after a campaign event in Ames, Iowa.

The Florida governor said he told the group’s president and CEO, Bob Vander Plaats, earlier Friday, “I don’t know what you guys are gonna do to work it out. But I’ll be here no matter what happens, so you guys can pencil me in for that.”

Ramaswamy campaign spokesperson Tricia McLaughlin said in a statement to CNN that the campaign is “hopeful that the RNC and the Family Leader will be able to work out their logistical issues to best serve voters.”

CNN has reached out to the DeSantis, Haley and Scott campaigns for comment.

“Trump’s reluctance to participate in other events leads us to believe he will not accept the invitation,” Zahn said. Vander Plaats has been critical of the former president, who did not attend the group’s Family Leadership Summit in July.

An Iowa Republican official familiar with the Thanksgiving event said the Trump campaign raised concerns about the forum with the RNC behind the scenes, the latest step in the long-standing feud between Trump and Vander Plaats.

The former president was invited but has no plans to attend, a Trump aide said.

In a news release, the Family Leader billed the event as an “evening where the invitees gather around a table, instead of standing at podiums, for what is described as ‘a family discussion with presidential candidates.’” Vander Plaats will moderate the event.

Last month, the RNC blocked a joint appearance by Ramaswamy and GOP rival Chris Christie on Fox News.

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RNC warns candidates that attending Iowa Christian group’s forum will disqualify them from debates