The Campaign Spot

Today’s RNC Chair Race Update

Not long ago I spoke with a Michael Steele ally on the state of the RNC Chair race. The ally was cautiously optimistic.

He noted he was hearing that South Carolina chair Katon Dawson was “doing himself some good” in his private meetings with RNC members. “He’s a state party chair, so he knows how to speak to their concerns well.” This wasn’t an expectation that Dawson would ultimately win, just an observation that he might be making progress in his vote totals.

But the Steele guy noted that his candidate wasn’t touting an endorsement a day, but holding off on the announcement of several key supporters. “We have a bullet in our chamber and we can use it now or we can use it later,” he told me.

Well, Team Steele just fired that bullet:

Former Maryland Lt. Gov. Michael Steele will announce Thursday that a dozen Republican National Committee members are whipping votes on his behalf to be the next leader of the national party, Steele political advisors tell CNN.

The state of the race is perpetually in flux, but here’s the sense of things from the people I talk to:

Current RNC Chairman Mike Duncan is either going to do well on the first ballot, and wrap it up quickly, or the message of the first ballot will be that a new leader is necessary. Nobody’s underestimating him despite the tough cycle for the GOP last year; he knows all of the voting RNC members except those just elected, and knows what appeals to them. He’s proven he can raise massive amounts of money, even in a difficult environment.

Everybody likes Saul Anuzis, but a lot of people are underwhelmed by the performance of the Michigan Republican Party under his leadership. Rivals have pointed out the party’s money troubles under his tenure as an ominous omen. Still, if the vote appears hopelessly deadlocked among various factions, it is not unthinkable that he could emerge as a consensus candidate.

Chip Saltsman had an uphill climb going into this as the youngest, and the CD controversy didn’t help. But the fact that he may not be the strongest RNC Chair candidate this moment doesn’t mean he couldn’t be a good fit for the job some time in the future. He went into the debate at the National Press Club with the sense that he had botched the response to the CD story, but impressed some observers with his message and delivery skills, including maybe the clearest renunciation of bailouts.

Katon Dawson impresses a lot of people, a lot of people like his record in South Carolina, and he may have the best grasp of the nuts and bolts of the job. But there’s still some trepidation among Northeastern and Midwestern RNC members about having a distinctly Southern voice speaking for the party. And fairly or not, if he were picked, the country club story would be endlessly spotlighted.

Just about everybody likes Michael Steele, but not everybody likes him for the job of RNC Chair. The argument that he’s a closet liberal or insufficiently conservative isn’t really the weakness; the worry is whether he’ll be as good at the parts of the job that aren’t in front of cameras – the day to day management.

Ken Blackwell has been campaigning hard, has an impressive resume, and is widely respected. But there are nagging worries – his 2006 campaign for governor performed badly even by the standards of a disappointing year for Republicans, barely advertised on television in the autumn of that year, and he left a lot of enemies in the state GOP. (For what it’s worth, Blackwell lost by 24 percent in purple Ohio, while Steele was losing by only 10 percent in deep blue Maryland.) Every candidate has their moments when they have stumbled, but Blackwell, unfortunately, had his fairly recently.

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