WASHINGTON -- Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) complained Wednesday about the way presidential primary debates are structured and suggested they may not be fair to Republican candidates since some of the journalists serving as moderators -- namely, ABC's George Stephanopoulos -- may be secretly working with Democrats.
During an interview on Geraldo Rivera's radio show, Paul was asked if he agrees with an effort by Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus to force two networks, CNN and NBC, to cancel planned TV projects on Hillary Clinton ahead of the 2016 presidential race. Otherwise, Priebus has threatened, the Republican Party won't partner with those networks when it comes time to air the GOP primary debates. Paul and Clinton are both considered potential 2016 presidential contenders, though neither has announced plans.
Paul responded by voicing concerns with how the 2012 presidential debates went.
"You can look back to the last primary season and wonder whether there was collusion between some reporters," he said. “You know, Stephanopoulos asks an obscure question about Griswold and birth control when no Republicans were bringing up anything about trying to have any limits on birth control.”
Paul was referring to a January 2012 primary debate moderated by Stephanopoulos, who asked a question about Griswold v. Connecticut, a Supreme Court case that relates to a state's right to ban contraception. Abortion rights were certainly an issue throughout the campaign season, but Paul suggested there may have been foul play behind Stephanopoulos broaching the subject.
"It was a weird thing to bring up in a debate," he said. "Then for two years, the president's campaign ran ads saying Republicans were against allowing people birth control. You wonder if there was a concerted action between a former Democrat operative and basically the president’s campaign."
Paul also took issue with the way primary debates are structured, suggesting that some of the journalists serving as moderators may have ties to the Democratic Party.
“Should we be scheduling debates and allowing people who used to, and still do, have contact with the active Democrat Party?" Paul asked. "Should we be subjecting ourselves to that or should we try to have more neutral or objective type of moderators?”
Asked if he was alleging that Stephanopoulos is a Democratic plant, Paul replied, "I'm saying that it makes you wonder."
Stephanopoulos was a top aide to Bill Clinton from 1992 until 1996, both on his campaign and in the White House, but since then has arguably earned his journalistic bona fides. He's currently the chief political correspondent for ABC News and the host of ABC's Sunday show, "This Week.'
Looking ahead to 2016, Paul said GOP presidential contenders may not get "a fair shake" if primary debates are moderated by people like Stephanopoulos, who Paul noted has publicly talked about his frequent correspondence with friends still involved in White House affairs.
"It's not unreasonable to say that we ... would not want to subject all of our candidates to withering cross-examination in front of hostile moderators while some get a free pass," Paul said, noting that Obama didn't have to endure the primary process in 2012. "Basically, Obama got a free pass. He didn't have to go through 20 debates with other Democrats slinging mud at him."
An ABC network source, who requested anonymity, said only that Paul has been interviewed by Stephanopoulos many times and has never complained about being treated unfairly.
Doug Stafford, a spokesman for Paul's 2016 Senate reelection campaign, said he would let Paul's remarks speak for themselves. He said he wasn't aware of the last time the senator was on a show with Stephanopoulos.
Paul's complaints about the presidential primary debates come amid some speculation as to what is really driving the RNC's threats to boycott ABC and NBC in 2016: a desire for fewer debates.
Time's Zeke Miller reported earlier this week that reforming the primary debate process has been "a central component of the RNC’s 2012 autopsy." Republican Party officials believe the 20 GOP primary debates in 2012 "hurt their party and Mitt Romney," Miller writes, and Priebus wants to lower the number of debates to 10 or 12, "in part to protect better-funded candidates from insurgents who capitalize on their time before the cameras."
Romney said as much after he lost the election, calling the 20 GOP primary debates "absolutely nuts" and lamenting that those debates "opened us up to gaffes and to material that could be used against us in the general."