Conservative blogging circles are abuzz with speculation about who will become the next Republican National Committee chair. The position represents one of the three highest-profile positions in the GOP, alongside the party leaders in the House and Senate. Those latter positions will be retained by Rep. John Boehner and Sen. Mitch McConnell despite a supremely disappointing 2007-2008 cycle. Current RNC Chairman Mike Duncan is running for another term — and many race watchers think it’s possible that RNC members will give him another two years on the job — but if the GOP is looking for new blood and a fresh face among its leadership, it will have to happen at the RNC’s winter meeting on January 29.
As Republicans reflect on which candidate for the RNC chair can best lead the party for the next two years, though, clouded thinking runs rampant — much of it based on the misperception that winning a majority of the 165 votes needed to become chairman requires the same skill set as winning a general election. For the sake of clarity, let’s clear up some myths about what makes a good party chairman.
Myth One: Ideology is paramount. Recently, 37 self-identified conservatives among the 168-member RNC formed a group to vet candidates for the party chair, purportedly to weed out the insufficiently conservative. Much of the early criticism of former Maryland lieutenant governor Michael Steele, for instance, revolves around his relationship with a group of GOP moderates — the Republican Leadership Council.
But this may mean less than it appears at first glance. This newly formed vetting committee includes two of the candidates for chair: Michigan GOP chairman Saul Anuzis and South Carolina GOP Chair Katon Dawson. What are the odds that the vetting committee will determine either man is insufficiently conservative? By what standard will they look at any of the candidates and declare, “this person is not conservative enough”?
The role of the national committee chair is such that, traditionally, the party has not engaged in a great deal of ideological screening. Ideology plays some role in fulfilling the responsibilities of candidate recruitment, of course — if you’re a social conservative, you might be less likely to recruit a libertarian-leaning candidate, and vice versa. But in the end, party chairman look for talented figures who can win races — and they rarely turn away a political hopeful who has a credible chance of knocking off a Democratic incumbent on the basis of ideology.
Geography may end up playing a bigger role than ideology. “In all but a couple of cases, these guys don’t care about ideology,” says one race watcher with professional ties to one of the candidates. “For some of them, it will be personal connection; some will want a leader or a national figure; and in places like the Northeast, they’ll want somebody who doesn’t hurt them at the top of the ticket, so to speak.”
If Steele is considered the liberal in the field, this is a pretty conservative group. The bottom line is: If you’ve been toiling in the GOP vineyard for years, you’ve fulfilled the first criteria of the RNC job — developing and promoting the Republican party’s ideas and candidates.
Myth Two: The RNC candidates are stalking horses for presidential candidates. Chip Saltsman was Mike Huckabee’s campaign manager. Current chairman Mike Duncan was widely perceived to be a fan of Mitt Romney. Katon Dawson — depending on who you listen to — is either a stalking horse for South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford, or he’s interested in making sure Sanford isn’t the 2012 nominee, as he’s touted Sarah Palin’s performance and defended her from critics.
The “if X becomes the RNC chair, that helps Y become the nominee” game is fun to play, but it’s a nonfactor in the RNC committee members’ thinking. It’s not just that 2012 is a long way off and there is no clear frontrunner for the GOP nomination four years from now. No RNC chair candidate wants to alienate the allies of one potential candidate by playing up their ties to a potential rival, or vice versa. Not even the allies of the various candidates are making much of the ties; they know it’s not what will ultimately influence the RNC voters’ decision.
Myth Three: The RNC chair has to be someone you’ve heard of. Right now, online discussions of the RNC race are dominated by Steele, well known for being a rare African-American Republican officeholder, for running a invigorating if ultimately unsuccessful Senate race in Maryland in 2006, for his frequent appearances on Fox News, and for two GOP-convention addresses — the latter of which debuted the slogan, “drill, baby, drill.” The other RNC hopefuls, while no strangers to cable news, simply haven’t had as much time on the national stage.
Undoubtedly, Steele would bring considerable strengths to one aspect of the job — being a spokesman for the party and communicating the party’s ideas and values. Were the chair selected by a nationwide ballot instead of a meeting of 158 RNC members, his fame would prove valuable. But to those 165 members, a longtime relationship greatly outweighs the value of smooth delivery on Fox & Friends. Erick Erickson of RedState, a self-described Steele fan, lays out why the position requires a “workhorse, not a show horse,” and expresses doubts about whether Steele’s personality fits the bill.