The Campaign Spot

Republican National Committee Chair Race Roundup

One of the intriguing questions of the race to be the next Republican National Committee chair is going to be which candidate can best handle all the different duties of the party chairman – talking head and spokesman, fundraiser, candidate recruiter, and party strategist.

The candidate who has attracted the most attention thus far, both positive and negative, is former Maryland Lieutenant Governor Michael Steele. He probably brings an unequaled shine to the public spokesman roles in the job, offering two stirring convention addresses (the second birthing the “drill, baby, drill” slogan) and a charming, if disappointingly unsuccessful bid for the Senate in Maryland in 2006.  Steele recently caused a bit of a stir with his characterization of party leaders having a “country club” mentality and being out of touch.

Of course, being the highest-profile candidate also means you have the largest target on your back. Some conservatives have questioned Steele’s pro-life bona fides and grumbled about his past membership in a group of GOP moderates, the Republican Leadership Council. Blogger and Weekly Standard contributor Mary Katherine Ham pooh-poohed the criticism, noting, “A black Catholic who grew up in D.C. and lives in Prince George’s County becomes a Republican, overcoming social pressure and withstanding abuse, because he believes in conservative ideas and the way they can serve all communities, not because he wishes to be a squishy moderate beloved of the Beltway press.”

Without Steele, Michigan GOP chair Saul Anuzis would probably be the “celebrity” candidate in the race, and that term is not used pejoratively. He has a non-traditional personal story as a first-generation American (his parents were Lithuanian immigrants), former Teamster, and is often seen riding his Harley-Davidson motorcycle around the state. His years as leading that state’s party have been noted by high energy and good outreach to the blogosphere… but not much in terms of party wins. One ally of another candidate expresses personal admiration for Anuzis but says the record of the GOP in his state during his term has been “abysmal.”

Asked about this in a recent Fox News interview, Anuzis said, “I would argue that we are a blue state that can go red under the right circumstances. But unless the national party and unless our leaders stand for the principles that will make us a majority party, I don’t think it matters what you do in Michigan Ohio or anywhere else.”

National Republican Committeeman from Michigan Chuck Yob’s presence in the race is interesting because he and Anuzis have been rivals for years. When you have two candidates from the same state, it dilutes each one’s support, and some race-watchers have wondered if one entered the race to ensure the defeat of the other. As one puts it, “having two guys from the same state is a good way to make sure neither one gets past the first ballot.”

South Carolina GOP chair Katon Dawson has already picked up one high-profile endorsement, from Rev. Donald E. Wildmon, who founded the American Family Association in Tupelo, Mississippi. Wildmon said Dawson “has the ability to take the party where it needs to go.”

One advisor to a Dawson rival, though, wonders if the S.C. party chair’s bid will be hurt by geography, noting that John McCain outperformed George W. Bush’s 2004 vote total in only 22 counties 22 percent of counties across the country, and (almost) all of those counties were in the South. Does the RNC need a Southern face and voice when it needs to improve its performance in so many other parts of the country?

Also, in perhaps an ironic twist to Steele’s ‘country club’ comment, Dawson recently resigned a Columbia country club that has no African-American members after 12 years of membership. He urged the club to change its policy in August.

Former Tennessee GOP Chairman and former campaign manager for Mike Huckabee Chip Saltsman is campaigning for the job with a uniquely personal touch, piloting his own plane around the country, meeting with every committeeman committeewoman and chairman in each state, an approach that a race watcher notes is “a good strategy.” He’s also e-mailed his platform to RNC members.

So far, there have been few, if any, major disagreements on policy or strategy for the party among the candidates. Everyone wants to use technology more effectively (Steele is urging Republicans to send ideas by text message), reach out to minorities, hold true to principles while reaching out to voters who have turned away from the GOP, empower state parties, etc.

The number of challengers indicates that current chair Mike Duncan will have a bit of an uphill climb in convincing RNC members to keep him around for another cycle. But after a cycle that included quite a few brutal defeats and disappointments, Duncan can point to one sterling portion of his record – the RNC’s fundraising did spectacularly this year ($336 million), while other Republican committees and candidates struggled. The DNC, by comparison, raised $206 million; the National Republican Congressional Committee raised $30 million while the National Republican Senatorial Committee raised $78 million. Of course, Barack Obama’s campaign raised about $640 million.

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