Gizzi on Politics: Feb. 26- Mar. 2

Winter of Their Discontent

As they closed their winter meeting in Washington, D.C., last week, it was clear that the Republican National Committee was by no means united and optimistic about the future.

Two months after the GOP lost control of both the House and the Senate in what was easily their worst mid-term election since the “Watergate Year” of 1974, the 168-member governing board of the party ratified the White House’s choice of Sen. Mel Martinez (R.-Fla.) as general chairman and Kentucky Republican National Committeeman Mike Duncan as the full-time operating head of the RNC.

But it was by no means a unanimous decision. Several members who spoke to me recalled that the “collective leadership” of the RNC with an elected official and chief operating officer had been tried twice before: With then-Sen. Bob Dole (Kan.) in 1971-72 and with then-Sen. Paul Laxalt (Nev.) during the Reagan Administration—both times with mixed results. Dole himself told me last year that the party functions better with “one chairman [and] one voice,” and Laxalt said the collective leadership worked in his case only because of the close, longtime personal relationship he had with President Reagan.

Citing the party’s own rule that calls for only an elected chairman and co-chairman, North Dakota RNC member Curly Haugland tried to use Robert’s Rules of Parliamentary Procedure to force a secret ballot on the resurrection of the general chairman position, but he was cut off by newly elected full-time Chairman Duncan, who moved for a voice vote.

Other RNC members who objected to putting Martinez at the party helm based their objections on the Florida senator’s strong pro-guest-worker position on illegal immigration, which they believe will hurt the GOP. Among those who opposed his election on these grounds were State Party Chairmen Tina Benkiser of Texas and Nancy Daves of North Carolina (who was attending her first RNC meeting since her election as chairman last month) and committee members Denise MacNamara (Tex.), Randy Pullen (Ariz.) and Nancy Lord (Utah).

Most other members swallowed the Martinez-Duncan arrangement without public complaint, but several privately told me they wished that the published reports that former Maryland Lt. Gov. Michael Steele was being considered for chairman were true. Steele told me that no one in the White House ever contacted him about the position, but that bloggers and several RNC members started talking him up and the story ”developed a life of its own.” As one RNC member who requested anonymity told me, “I’ll go along with the White House on Martinez, but I could have gotten very enthusiastic about Michael Steele.”

Down With Campaign Finance Rules!    

On the final day of its winter meeting last week, the Republican National Committee passed a strongly worded resolution denouncing the ’02 campaign finance legislation, which restricts what political parties can do in supporting their candidates for federal office and bans the use of so-called “soft” money by national party committees. The resolution, authored by Indiana RNC member James Bopp, Jr., called on Congress to deregulate the campaign finance measure. It was seen by some observers as an RNC slap at Arizona Sen. John McCain, co-sponsor of the measure, and at President George W. Bush, who signed it into law, even though he wasn’t sure of its constitutionality.

When I asked White House Press Secretary Tony Snow whether President Bush was aware of the RNC resolution, he replied: “I don’t know if he’s aware of it.”

The RNC resolution was passed less than a week before the U.S. Supreme Court was to revisit the ’02 campaign finance law and, as the Washington Post put it, “settle the role of campaign spending by corporations, unions and special interest groups in time for the ’08 presidential primaries.”

A New Breed

One point that was made repeatedly by RNC members at the Grand Hyatt Hotel in Washington was how rapidly their ranks are changing. Since the November election, no fewer than eight Republican state chairmen have announced their resignations. In every case, the new man or woman at the party helm is someone with a history of working for conservative causes and candidates.

In some states, there has been or will be a definite “upgrade” for conservatives. In Colorado, for example, Dick Wadhams, former campaign manager for such conservative stalwarts as Sen. Wayne Allard (R.-Colo.) and former Gov. (1998-2006) Bill Owens, is a cinch to take over the party helm from outgoing Chairman Bob Martinez. In Arizona, while there is a contested race to succeed retiring Chairman Matt Salmon, the strong favorite is National Committeeman Randy Pullen, who is best known on the RNC as the author last year of a strong resolution condemning illegal immigration and a guest-worker program. Pullen has long clashed with Sen. John McCain. California Republicans are almost certain to replace retiring Chairman Duf Sundheim, a close ally of moderate Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, with Vice Chairman Ron Nehring, a close ally of Americans for Tax Reform leader Grover Norquist.

Even in Connecticut—not exactly a hotbed of conservative activism in the GOP—the likely successor to State Party Chairman George Gallo (who is leaving next month to become staff director for Republicans in the state house of representatives) is Party Communications Director Chris Healy, who got his start in politics as a youngster in New York City handing out leaflets for Conservative Party mayoral candidate William F. Buckley, Jr., in 1965.

In all, one RNC member told me, they expect one-third of the 168-member committee to have changed by the time it holds its next meeting later this year in Columbia, S.C.

“The common denominator among the newer chairmen—Randy [Pullen], Dick [Wadhams], [Virginia Chairman] Ed Gillespie and me—is that we came of age as conservatives, and we know grass-roots politics,” Saul Anuzis, Michigan’s state chairman for just over a year, told a group of Human Events editors over lunch after the meeting. Self-styled “Kemp-Gingrich Republican” Anuzis predicted that he and his allies on the committee would reinvigorate the party’s organizations at the grass-roots level and “make the party stand for things.”

One area that the younger chairmen are expected to focus on soon is changing the party’s 1972 rule that permits a candidate to be placed in nomination for President only if he has a majority of delegates from five states rather than one. The rule, whose origins remain a mystery to most RNC members today, killed the concept of state parties nominating “favorite sons”—something that would have kept one of the last favorite sons, Gov. Ronald Reagan of California, from being placed in nomination had it been in effect at the 1968 GOP convention. At the meeting of the Platform Committee at the ’04 convention, a motion was made to permit candidates to be nominated with a majority of delegates from one state.

That measure was defeated—in large part because proponents began their campaign late and did not get a complete list of the 108-member Platform Committee until just days before the meeting. Several party sources told me they had the impression that White House political operative Karl Rove did not want any rules changes so as not to create any media stir during President Bush’s renomination.

The younger, more conservative chairmen I spoke to last week made it clear they wanted the “favorite son” measure restored. As Louisiana National Committeeman Ross Little, Jr., told me, “This is something that won’t go away and, next time, we’ll be ready.