Today’s debate among the five candidates for Republican National Committee chairman finally offered Republicans a showdown between Michael Steele and his rivals, but the debate didn’t offer much in terms of fireworks.
Four of the candidates had met in early December for a debate sponsored by FreedomWorks, but Steele, then not yet an “official” candidate for reelection, did not show. That led to a lot of generic consensus about how disappointing the RNC had been for the past two years while the GOP as a whole enjoyed a widespread comeback. Today’s debate marked the first, and only, chance for Steele to face down and rebut the quartet of GOP officials angling for his job: Reince Priebus, chairman of the Wisconsin GOP; Maria Cino, a Bush-administration official and organizer of the 2008 GOP convention; Saul Anuzis, former chairman of the Michigan GOP; and Ann Wagner, former chairman of the Missouri GOP.
But Steele, elected two years ago on a dynamic media presence and unpredictable charisma, was subdued for much of the 90-minute debate. Before it began, Politico argued that a canvass suggested that his bid for reelection is already doomed; it found 88 of the 168 RNC members opposing Steele and 55 of them saying they wouldn’t vote to reelect him under any circumstances.
Steele observed that he took over at the RNC at a moment of supreme gloom for the party: “We couldn’t find someone who would say that they were Republican, let alone run for [office],” he began. “Time magazine declared we were an endangered species in 2009 — not that long ago.”
“I’m a glass-half-full kind of guy. I don’t see the crisis . . . ” Steele said, in perhaps the understatement of the afternoon. He most directly defended his record late in the debate when he talked about the RNC’s get-out-the-vote efforts this cycle: “You’re right, we did not have a lot of volunteers out of Washington, but that was because we had 200,000 volunteers across the country, who made 45 million voter contacts. Our victory program began in January 2010. So to say we didn’t fund our get-out-the-vote programs is a misnomer, because we really did. Your state might have gotten X amount in past cycles, but this year it may not have gotten that [same level] because we were playing in 50 states. I think we won in all 50 states this year.”
The closest Steele came to acknowledging his occasional controversies and gaffes came when he pointed out the chairman’s limited role in setting policy. “At the end of the day, you don’t get to dictate the terms to the speaker of the House and the Senate minority leader. You have to bring that message to them, and you have to carry that message for them. But if you forget that, you will get reminded: You don’t do policy.” There were a few chuckles in the room as Steele offered that presumably hard-learned lesson. When asked if there was any Obama decision or stance that he agreed with, Steele praised his leadership in “the war,” a bit of an odd response considering how he got in hot water for calling Afghanistan “a war of Obama’s choosing.”
While Steele’s reelection bid faces the steepest of climbs, the next RNC chairman may eventually thank Steele for raising the interest in this race: GOP consultant Matt Mackowiak observed, “The crowd at the RNC debate would be half this size if Steele weren’t running.” After Steele’s opening statement competed with a cacophony of clicks and whirrs from photojournalists, Priebus joked, “The cameras can take a break now.”
In the past few weeks, Republican political operatives have grumbled a bit that the candidates have spent so much time talking hot-button policy issues when, they contend, the job of the RNC chairman is primarily managerial and financial.
Mike Murphy, who recently managed Meg Whitman’s gubernatorial effort in California, lamented, “Sad Irony: Cino is best operative on stage, yet probably last in RNC votes right now. Nearly same story for Saul Anuzis.” Chris Barron, chairman of the gay Republican group GOProud, grumbled, “Process might not be as sexy as policy but it is the job of the RNC Chair.”
But policy questions dominated much of the debate — questions on abortion and gay marriage from representatives of one of the debate’s co-sponsors, the Susan B. Anthony List (the others were the Daily Caller and Americans for Tax Reform), as well as questions on what parts of the federal budget the aspiring chairmen would like to see cut.
Moderator Tucker Carlson cited Delaware Senate candidate Christine O’Donnell when asking where the aspiring chairmen would draw the line between preferring principled conservative candidates and bowing to the political realities of blue states. None of the candidates said that the RNC should play favorites in the primaries, but Priebus declared, “Our chairman has to be an outspoken, unabashed conservative Republican.” He made the most explicitly ideological pitch, with almost every answer invoking either Wisconsin Republicans like Paul Ryan and Ron Johnson or the Tea Parties.
The other four indicated that they preferred a hands-off approach in primaries; that position was perhaps best summarized by Anuzis: “The primaries work, and the voters work. It’s always a mistake when somebody comes in and says this person is too conservative or this person is too whatever. We have a system that works, and we ought to trust the voters. When we run like Republicans, we win. When we run like Democrats, we lose.”
But the debate did feature some segments that dealt more extensively with the nuts and bolts of what an RNC chairman will have to do to ensure a victorious 2012 cycle.
Wagner: “Good turnout programs are nothing but words on paper without real funding behind them. . . . In 2012, Democrats will be much more motivated, and turnout will be higher. A 24-hour get-out-the-vote program is already too late with all the states that have early voting.” She called for a “win early” program.
Anuzis said the RNC faces “a moment of crisis . . . We have to raise $20 million before we start banking money for the next presidential race. . . . We need somebody who can make the trains run on time.”
Priebus said the next chairman has to be willing to “spend five, six hours a day every day calling major donors, working like a dog.”
Cino touted her work with Republican organizations throughout her career. “I’ve worked in or with the RNC for the past 30 years, and every project I managed has finished successfully and on budget. . . . I know what it takes to retire big debts — I did that in 1994 with [former New York Republican congressman] Bill Paxon running the National Republican Congressional Committee. . . . I need no on-the-job training, because I’ve already done this job.”
— Jim Geraghty writes the Campaign Spot for NRO.