J. C. Watts for RNC Chairman?

by John Fund

After a bitter defeat in which the GOP presidential candidate won only 7 percent of African-American votes and just over a quarter of Hispanic and Asian votes, it’s natural for Republicans to cast about for new leadership. Enter J. C. Watts, the former GOP congressman from Oklahoma, who has told Politico he is being “encouraged” to run for chairman of the Republican National Committee to help the party’s efforts with minorities. If he ran, he would challenge RNC chairman Reince Priebus’s bid for a second term at the RNC’s winter meeting in Charlotte next month.

“In this business, if you’re not growing, you’re dying,” Watts told Politico. He is critical of the “old, tired” habit of setting up a “window dressing” committee to attract minority voters close to an election instead of having a “permanent infrastructure” to reach out to minority voters.

Watts has a point. Outreach efforts by Republicans have been slapdash, tentative, and focused on last-minute media appeals rather than consistent grass-roots efforts. But Priebus would almost certainly weather any challenge from Watts based on his prodigious fundraising efforts, which dragged the RNC out of $22 million in debt accumulated during former chairman Michael Steele’s 2009 to 2011 tenure. The best guess is that Priebus already has firm commitments for a second term from 130 of the 168 RNC members.

Watts is ultimately unlikely to run because his candidacy would draw attention to his post-congressional career as a lobbyist and pitchman. Watts has done invaluable political work, including a stint as a successful chairman of GOPAC, a Republican training school for new political talent. But in his business career his clients have ranged from a payday-loan trade association to a Cherokee Indian tribe to a now-bankrupt group pitching “free money” government grants on late-night TV. 

His role with the latter group is troubling. The former professional football hero became a pitchman in 2004 for National Grants Conferences, a firm whose TV commercials recruited viewers to spend at least $1,000 for “seminars” on how to apply for federal grants they wouldn’t have to pay back.

The Florida-based firm racked up hundreds of consumer complaints that led many Better Business Bureau chapters around the country to give it an “F” rating.” A Census Bureau spokesman characterized the NGC commercial as “very misleading,” and noted that almost all of the information if offered was available for free online. One of NGC’s claims was that some $384 billion in federal grants were available to individuals. In fact, most federal grants are aimed at small businesses and non-profit applicants and are nearly impossible for individuals to get.

Everybody is allowed to make a living, but at a minimum Watts’s pitches touting high-pressure sales seminars teaching people to apply for “free” government money undermine his claims to be a true-blue conservative.

Indeed, another former congressman who was encouraged by Watts to also make infomercials for NGC saw it blow up his attempt to revive his political career. Former congressman J. D. Hayworth of Arizona was attacked during his primary challenge to Senator John McCain in 2010 for his role touting the NGC scheme. The controversy contributed to his landslide loss to McCain that year. 

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