RNC backs off on warning candidates about participating in Iowa Christian group’s forum

The Republican National Committee is allowing presidential candidates to attend an Iowa Christian organization’s Thanksgiving forum next week, a person familiar with the RNC’s thinking told CNN, backing off from its warning to candidates that participating in the event could lead to disqualification from future debates.

Bob Vander Plaats, president and CEO of the Family Leader, said he and the RNC came to an agreement on the forum.

“The RNC and I have agreed on the format of @TheFamilyLeader November 17 Thanksgiving FAMiLY Forum. The Forum is NOT a debate. Thus, the RNC is giving a thumbs up for candidates to participate. Thanks to the RNC for facilitating a win/win for the process. #ChooseWell2024,” Vander Plaats tweeted Saturday.

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 scheduled for November 17. DeSantis, Scott and Ramaswamy RSVP’d for the event, Drew Zahn, a spokesperson for the group, said Friday.

In an October 28 letter obtained by CNN, the RNC counsel’s office reminded the candidates that they had agreed not to participate in any non-RNC-sanctioned debates during the campaign.

“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 letter said.

“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.

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.

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.

Trump was invited to the event but has no plans to attend, an aide to the former president 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.

CNN’s Ali Main and Jeff Zeleny contributed to this report.

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