Monday, January 26, 2009

RNC Race Too Close to Call as Election Approaches

By Stuart Rothenberg

Races for national party chairman invariably are covered as if they are presidential campaigns. That’s understandable, since elections are involved. But it’s also misleading.

When Republican National Committee members gather in the nation’s capital at the end of this month to select a new party chairman, the contest will much more resemble a fraternity chapter meeting rather than an election for the U.S. House.

Veterans of contests for party chairman say that these races are more about the national committee members — whom they have built relationships with and are comfortable with — than about where the contenders stand on issues, what states they come from or, sometimes, even what specific assets they would bring to the post.

National committee members are an insular group, greatly valuing their experiences on the national committee and doubting the ability of anyone who has not been part of their fraternity to make decisions that will guide their party to victory. Anytime there is a fight for national party chairman, that attitude plays a significant role in advantaging some contenders and all but disqualifying others.

Since few national party chairman hopefuls bring the perfect combination of media skill, ideological fit, fundraising ability, organizational skill and experience, and unimpeachable neutrality (for internal party maneuverings) that would make them ideal for the job, chairmanship decisions often turn on personal factors.

This year’s RNC race increasingly appears to be a three- or possibly four-person contest, with the current RNC chairman, Mike Duncan, holding a tenuous but not insignificant advantage over former Maryland Lt. Gov. Michael Steele, with Michigan GOP Chairman Saul Anuzis and South Carolina GOP Chairman Katon Dawson fighting it out for third.

Former Tennessee GOP Chairman Chip Saltsman hurt himself seriously by circulating a controversial song, while former Ohio Secretary of State Ken Blackwell has never been on the RNC and therefore lacks a crucial credential in this election.

Blackwell has the support of many high-profile conservative activists, including some whose influence has waned over the past 20 years, but while supporters are fervent, his ceiling in this contest is relatively low.

Dawson’s membership in an all-white country club and his Southern base are problems, especially after Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, a former national chairman who remains extremely popular and influential within the RNC, suggested that the party would not benefit from picking a Southerner to head the national party. Still, two recent endorsements, by Mississippi national committeeman Henry Barbour (Haley’s brother) and New Jersey’s David Norcross, have boosted Dawson’s standing in the race.

Duncan leads at the moment because he is a known quantity and is perceived as a safe choice by committee members. He has interacted with his colleagues on the national committee for years, building the kind of personal relationships that often pay off in these kinds of votes.

Well-placed sources also say that the current RNC chairman is the choice of one-time master White House strategist Karl Rove, who apparently believes that he can continue to exert significant influence on the direction of the party as long as Duncan is in charge.

But Duncan’s election would send a bizarre message of continuity and status quo to a party that has suffered two consecutive election cycles of stinging defeats. Even RNC members who feel personally comfortable with the sitting RNC chairman might not be willing to do that. And even though Duncan surely isn’t responsible for his party’s problems, even party insiders understand that they need to send a message of change.

Steele, who chaired the Maryland GOP (or what’s left of the state party after decades of atrophy), obviously has plenty of assets, including a strong TV presence and the fact that he, like Blackwell, is black. Some complain that he isn’t conservative enough, and even some of his friends say that he can be a loose cannon. But he surely would send a message of change to the country.

Anuzis is a savvy political insider who has spent the past couple of years increasing his visibility (including his use of new media). He’s outgoing and personable, with a style that’s more blue-collar than country club. But he’s also widely seen more as a political operative than a leader, and the Michigan GOP’s recent electoral failures are hampering his bid.

The Michigan Republican’s strategy is both interesting and astute. He is, as one insider described it, “just trying to hang around,” hoping to become something of a consensus alternative if RNC members ultimately decide that they cannot afford to send a status quo message by re-electing Duncan or risk the uncertainty of turning the national party over to the unpredictable Steele.

Right now, the RNC race is clearly up for grabs, with no candidate within shouting distance of a majority. That may well be the case when national committee members gather in Washington next week to select a party chairman.

The election of the next RNC chairman won’t make or break the Republican Party. The party’s image cannot be resurrected overnight, and President Barack Obama’s performance is much more important as a factor in a GOP revival than is the selection of the next chairman of the Republican National Committee.

Still, the selection will send a message and, possibly, elevate a new party spokesman. And while this is just the first of many tests for the GOP, often the first test can set the stage for others.

This column first appeared in Roll Call on January 22, 2009. 2009 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.