There’s been a bit of hubbub about how much the postition of Republican National Committee chair, or the RNC itself, matters.
Liz Mair, an online strategist with Hynes Communications and former RNC online communications director, who’s done a terrific job keeping track of the ins and outs of the race, recently observed that “the only reason grassroots Republicans think the chair race is unimportant is because in previous presidential cycles, we’ve had a functional RNC.”
I’d note the Republican grassroots are not so engaged with this year’s RNC chair race because A) they don’t have a vote in the matter and B) with the exception of Steele, all of the candidates are making similar promises and using similar rhetoric — embrace the Tea Parties, fundraising is key, the chairman should stay out of policy fights, chairing the RNC should not be a stepping stone to higher office, no donor events in lesbian-bondage-themed clubs. (I guess that last one is just implicit.) By contrast, the 2009 RNC chair race, coming on the heels of the 2008 election debacle, was widely perceived as a key early decision on the party’s direction, at a time when Republicans were looking for new leaders.
If you’re a professional in the political arena, who runs the RNC matters a great deal.
In normal years, when the Republican National Committee is on solid financial footing, it steers millions of dollars to electing GOP officials and strengthening the party. This cycle the RNC will start $15 million in the hole from last cycle, so the organization will have to retire debt while building its war chest for the 2011 governors’ races in Louisiana, Mississippi, and Kentucky, the 2012 elections, and any special elections that arise in the interim. Either way, the next chairman will gain access to a national network of donors large and small, and the power and authority to direct millions of dollars.
Each incoming chairman has his preferred strategists, his preferred ad guys, his preferred professional fundraisers, event planners, direct-mail firms, Internet and web specialists, etc. If a chairman has worked with a particular firm for these services throughout his career, those firms will have the inside track for big-ticket work for the RNC. Candidates for chair will often pledge that they won’t direct money/contracts to their friends, but if a party chair thinks highly of a particular firm, it’s hard to believe that doesn’t help that firm get work.
Of course, chairmen have similar ability to steer money towards particular regions of the country. If an RNC chairman is convinced that winning the presidency means the Republican candidate must win in State X, then State X is going to get a lot of financial and other help from the national committee. Likewise, it’s hard to imagine any chairman shortchanging his own state.
For a vivid example of how a chair can turn attention to particular regions, look at the RNC’s approach to U.S. territories in this past cycle. The 168 members of the Republican National Committee represent the state chair, national committeeman, and national committeewoman for all 50 states as well as the District of Columbia, American Samoa, Guam, Northern Mariana Islands, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands. Of those, only the District has any electoral votes and a member of Congress (and that representative cannot vote on final passage of legislation, just in committee). But in the contest for RNC chair, the support of three RNC members from American Samoa counts as much as say, the three RNC members from Florida.
“The islands” were key to Michael Steele’s win in 2009, and he has been attentive: He traveled to Guam, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands less than two months before Election Day, and the RNC sent $15,000 to the Guam GOP in late September and $20,000 to the Republicans in the Northern Mariana Islands in 2009. Under Steele, several RNC staffers traveled to the territories during this cycle. Needless to say, some Republicans in other places think there were better places to spend that money.
So if your livelihood depends on contracts with a state Republican party, the selection of the next RNC chair is supremely important. (It is likely that almost every conversation between an RNC member and an aspiring chair includes some variation of the question, “What will you do for my state?”)
But if you asked members of the grassroots what they want to see out of the Republican party in the coming cycle, I suspect many would say they’re more concerned with ideology than geography. At the FreedomWorks candidate forum, a few questions from Tea Party-minded folks asked what the RNC could do about incumbents who ignore primary losses (like Sen. Lisa Murkowski in Alaska) and several other queries had a general “how do we get rid of the squishes” tone. The candidates in attendance agreed that neither the RNC nor its chair should get involved in primary fights, although it’s worth noting the RNC wasn’t a big player in GOP primaries this cycle, either.
Either way, the Republican National Committee chairman is a strange place to expect enforcement of loyalty to conservative principles. The RNC’s job is to strengthen the party, primarily by electing Republicans. Outside groups whose mission is to prioritize conservative values over party label seem like a better avenue to channel those energies.
Perhaps the GOP grassroots should care more about the RNC chair; many smart Republican campaign veterans think the GOP cannot win the presidency in 2012 without an effective national committee. The problem is, this would require the grassroots to evaluate the declared candidates — Steele, Saul Anuzis, Reince Priebus, Maria Cino, Gentry Collins,
Mike Duncan, Ann Wagner — not on ideology but on their ability to fundraise and coordinate with state parties, organize powerful get-out-the-vote operations, do opposition research, and perform a lot of other behind-the-scenes activities. And even if they do evaluate and determine a consensus favorite, will their state-party chairs and committeemen and women listen to them?
UPDATE: I finish this post just in time for Mike Duncan to announce he’s no longer running.