Politics & Policy

Job Requirement: Stronger than Steele

The race for RNC chair is heating up.

The era of Michael Steele’s chairmanship of the Republican National Committee appears to be nearing its end.

At least some of the men and women who aspire to Steele’s job will meet Wednesday for a debate before conservative activists and some RNC members sponsored by FreedomWorks and the Conservative Steering Committee, a group of RNC members who are worried about ideological drift in the national party organization. At least one more debate will be held in January, sponsored by Americans for Tax Reform.

The first oddity in the crowded field is how many former allies of the current RNC chairman are running or considering a bid. Saul Anuzis, the former Michigan GOP chair who assisted Steele on technology issues earlier in the cycle, has announced a bid. Gentry Collins, a veteran strategist who worked alongside Steele for two years — and who, when announcing his sudden resignation, expressed frustration with Steele — is reportedly considering his own bid for the chairmanship. So is Wisconsin party chairman Reince Priebus, who ran Steele’s 2009 bid for chairman.

“I don’t take lightly the fact that I am challenging a friend and colleague for the chairmanship,” Anuzis said in his announcement. “When Michael was elected chairman, I was the only candidate who stepped forward to attend the next morning’s RNC breakfast meeting, agreed to join the transition team, and later took on several roles as a team player on the RNC . . . and I have attended every meeting since. Given my involvement and efforts to help over the past two years, it was not an easy decision for me to seek the post. As someone who believes in loyalty, my natural instinct would be to sit this out. But the simple fact is that the overriding challenge we face is winning back the presidency in 2012, and we will not accomplish that objective unless there is dramatic change in the way the RNC does business.”

“I’ve publicly called for Steele to resign because of his remarks about Afghanistan,” says Cesar Conda, a former assistant for domestic policy to Vice President Dick Cheney and a well-connected GOP strategist. “I’m a big supporter of Saul Anuzis for RNC chairman. Saul is clearly recognized as the most tech-savvy party leader on the GOP side. He understands the new media better than anyone and can make revolutionary changes in the RNC’s technology and communications efforts. Saul is a prodigious fundraiser, and there is no substitute for a personalized approach to high-dollar fundraising — especially when we don’t have the White House. Saul is willing to commit the energy to these programs that is required, given the failure of Steele to keep them on track.”

Conda adds that he likes the fact that Anuzis “is not politically ambitious. He has no plans to ever run for public office. He isn’t going to write a book. He is a pro who will make the trains run on time and stay out of the way of the candidates and elected GOP leaders when it comes to securing media and being the face of the party.”

Ann Wagner, who was chair of the Missouri GOP from 1999 to 2005, has also announced a bid. She served as co-chair of the GOP from 2001 to 2005, and most recently chaired the winning Senate bid of Roy Blunt in her home state. In her announcement, she emphasized the financial operations of the organization: “The RNC needs to be funded to its maximum obligations. We must be efficient, relevant, professional and credible. We must start immediately to erase past debt and restore the confidence of our donor base. . . . Fundraising must come first. We also must have greater transparency and accountability when it comes to the RNC’s budget and expenditures. As a former co-chairman and member, I know how important it is for the RNC membership to be fully informed and engaged.”

Maria Cino, who was deputy chairwoman of the RNC in 2004 and current member of the American Action Network board, is also reportedly considering a bid. She has worked in leadership positions at the National Republican Congressional Committee and Pres. George W. Bush’s 2000 campaign, and ran the 2008 Republican National Convention.

“She is exactly what the RNC needs at exactly the time they need it,” says veteran strategist Mary Matalin, who is supporting Cino. “She is head and shoulders the most qualified and experienced, especially on matters where the most troublesome problems exist, from raising money to technological advances to managing a demoralized organization in chaos. She is a devoted Catholic from a working class family. . . . Note how her experiences line up with the RNC’s current problems. Finally, she doesn’t need the job and will not use it to further her own ambitions.”

Also, a Republican political operative outside Washington who worked on Steele’s bid in 2009 says that he has been told to postpone committing to any existing candidate, in deference to a “secret candidate” who will be revealed later.

An Anuzis ally says that, compared with the 2009 “campaign” for chair — which featured everything from a debate to campaign-style signs for Steele — he expects “a pretty low key campaign. . . . The only thing that really matters is Saul dialing the telephone.”

Indeed, despite such campaign-like trappings as debates and interviews, in the end it comes down to the preferences of 168 RNC members, whose highest priority is often ensuring sufficient committee attention for key races within their own states. Personal relationships can play a significant role, as in 2009, when Sean Hannity made calls to RNC members in an attempt at last-minute persuasion and arm-twisting.

“Here is what the GOP needs in a party chair,” explains one GOP strategist not currently affiliated with any candidate. “Someone to whom it is very hard for donors to say no. Someone who commands respect from everyone, including his or her own staff. Someone who has the connections and capacity to have a shadow national field operation ready to go by the time we have a presidential nominee. Someone who resists the urge to talk about ‘revolutionary’ strategies and tactics. Someone who doesn’t give a [hoot] about policy — that’s up to the folks on the Hill. Someone who has exactly zero future ambitions and can focus on the now. Someone who will invest in research, which has been sorely lacking.”

Another strategist, who says he thinks highly of both Anuzis and Cino, says he wishes the organization could move to a chairman-and-executive-director model, “where you have someone like a Haley Barbour or Fred Thompson on top, but a very strong money man and organization guy as executive director. . . . It ensures that the RNC has someone good at carrying a message and generating enthusiasm, but also someone who can make sure the trains run on time.”

At this point, there is little talk of splitting the position, but any new chairman could split up the duties as he or she sees fit. At this point, it looks as if Michael Steele won’t be making that decision.

Jim Geraghty writes the Campaign Spot on NRO.

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