Republican National Committee members voted Thursday to eliminate the body's debate committee, a small but meaningful change signaling that Republicans do not plan to sanction any primary debates in the upcoming presidential election cycle.
The move could also serve as a warning to would-be Republican rivals of President Donald Trump about his strong support among party loyalists, at a moment when his approval ratings have ticked up but still remain relatively low compared with those of past presidents, leaving him politically vulnerable.
John Hammond, a national committeeman from Illinois who co-chairs the RNC's subcommittee governing the primary process, explained to members that "times are different from a lot of perspectives" from when the committee adopted its debate rules. Those rules, Hammond added, will be less relevant "as we continue to support the President and the vice president and the current administration" leading up to the 2020 presidential election.
Eliminating the committee governing debates would not prevent RNC Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel from naming a debates committee at a later date, RNC members stressed as they discussed the issue. A few committeemen spoke in favor of the change, including Randy Evans of Georgia, who is awaiting confirmation as ambassador to Luxembourg. None opposed it.
The move could create a minor headache for would-be Republican challengers to the President, however, should they hope to debate him during the primary. A few Republicans have expressed openness to taking on Trump, including Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona and Ohio Gov. John Kasich.
But the challenge of organizing a debate would likely not be insurmountable, said John Weaver, an adviser to Kasich.
"If the market dictates a need for debates, there will be debates, regardless of what people in a smoke-filled room want or desire," Weaver told CNN.
The RNC played a prominent role in the debates process during the 2016 GOP primary, as the party sought to bring some semblance of order to a historically crowded field. The exercise was not without drama: The party memorably revoked NBC's privileges to host a debate following an uproar over CNBC's handling of an earlier forum.
RNC members are meeting this week at the Trump National Doral Miami. Among the featured speakers Thursday were Donald Trump Jr., conservative commentators Candace Owens and Charlie Kirk, who addressed the committee during lunch; Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, a 2016 presidential candidate, is slated to speak to the committee Thursday evening.