Why should potential chairmen of the Republican National Committee debate before an audience of conservatives, when the decision of who leads the RNC is up to its 168 members? Think of Wednesday’s RNC chair debate — held at the Washington Hilton and sponsored by FreedomWorks and the Conservative Steering Committee — as spring training. While the job of RNC chair is only one-third or so public speaking and media appearances, those aren’t duties that can be ignored. If you can’t impress or warm a hotel ballroom of Republicans, you flunk the first test of a potential party chairman.
The event began with a surprise, as Mike Duncan, who was RNC chair from January 2007 to January 2009, appeared onstage as a newly announced candidate. His entrance came so late that his nametag on the panel table was hand-written instead of printed. Duncan was defeated on the fourth ballot two years ago. He is still a Republican committeeman from Kentucky.
“I’m a person of faith, I’m a person of hope,” Duncan began. He told of a dozen roles he had played in his life before even mentioning his time as chairman of the committee, a tenure that included one of the more difficult cycles for Republicans in recent memory.
Later Duncan pointed out that he didn’t go home and pout after losing the last RNC election but remained active in the Kentucky GOP and became chairman of American Crossroads, a well-funded 527 group with which Karl Rove and Ed Gillespie, himself a former RNC chairman, are involved. Duncan touted his fundraising success, but it’s not clear whether the audience was moved. The GOP’s performance in 2008, relative to 2010, demonstrates that you can have a lousy year with a low-profile chairman and a fabulous year with a widely criticized one.
Duncan shared the stage with three rivals: Ann Wagner, chair of the Missouri GOP and former co-chair of the RNC; Gentry Collins, a former Iowa state-party executive director and, until recently, political director of the RNC under Steele; and Saul Anuzis, a former state-party chair in Michigan who continued to work with the RNC through the past cycle. Twenty RNC members, all aligned with the Republican National Conservative Caucus, were in the audience.
Current chairman Michael Steele did not appear, nor did several candidates and potential candidates, including Maria Cino, deputy chairwoman of the RNC in 2004 and current member of the American Action Network board, Wisconsin GOP chair Reince Priebus, and Connecticut GOP chair Chris Healy.
“By virtue of your being here, you should be considered favorites for the position,” said Max Pappas, public-policy director for FreedomWorks and one of the event’s moderators. “We invited all current candidates. Your presence is a signal that a successful Republican party is one where the broad cross-section that is the Tea Party movement feels welcome.”
The candidates’ answers did not vary all that much. Everyone argued that the committee’s fundraising in the past two years underperformed to an embarrassing degree. Both Collins and Duncan echoed Marco Rubio’s line that he feared that his children would not enjoy the freedoms and quality of life that Americans enjoy today.
Interestingly, for the first hour, the name “Michael Steele” was not mentioned, although the performance of the RNC over the past two years was derided and slammed relentlessly. Perhaps each candidate hopes for a Steele endorsement on some ballot.
“We did not raise the money necessary to implement the programs we needed to win across the country,” lamented Anuzis. “The RGA stepped in and took over many states because we weren’t ready to do the job. . . . When I was state-party chairman, I probably spent 70 to 75 percent of my time raising money. The major-donor program at the RNC has dropped off considerably.”
“It’s money first, money second, and money third,” Wagner emphasized. According to her, the RNC needed to convince donors that their investment was sound and that RNC leaders and staffers would be good stewards of that money.
Despite no mention of Steele by name, the four candidates implicitly criticized the incumbent in their discussion of what the next chairman ought — and ought not — to do. “The chair of the RNC does not have a vote in Congress and, if we’re being candid with each other, is not a policymaker,” Collins said. He recommended getting a health-care referendum on the ballot in as many states as possible in 2012, to drive turnout among the GOP base.
In response to a question about Sen. Lisa Murkowski, all of the candidates said the RNC and its chair should stay out of primaries and respect the decision of primary voters. Anuzis added that there was nothing wrong with challenging a 30-year incumbent. All four agreed that all GOP candidates should be required to pledge that, if they ignore primary results and run as write-in candidates or independents, they will return any RNC contributions. (At one point, discussing a recent vote on earmarks, Pappas asserted that Lisa Murkowski “may not be a Republican anymore.”)
Unsurprisingly, none of the four potential RNC chairs walked out of the ballroom with any major damage having been done to their bid. As I noted earlier, the candidates’ personal relationships and pitches to the 168 members will play a much larger role in determining the winner than predictable, if generally satisfying, answers to questions from conservative activists submitted via Twitter.
At a similar event held in January 2009, there was much discussion about the optics of the party and its potential new leader. The final vote came down to Steele and Katon Dawson, who had a remarkably successful record of organizing and party-building during his time running the state party in South Carolina. But in the end, many RNC members likely cringed at the image of a Southerner who had once been a member of a whites-only golf club beating an African American on the final ballot, just months after the election of the first African-American president.
The discussion on Wednesday suggested a group of GOP leaders who have largely moved beyond questions of identity. They seemed more interested in the actions of the Obama administration and the reaction of the Tea Party. The GOP, as this crop of candidates sees it, is the tool to channel Tea Partiers’ objections, a process that began in 2009, continued and intensified in 2010, and, they hope, will reach full fruition in 2012.
As Wagner said, “When my mother could explain the stimulus package and the economic costs of cap-and-trade to me, I knew we were in a world that had been transformed.”
— Jim Geraghty writes the Campaign Spot on NRO.