Big Three Eye Republican National Chairmanship

For weeks before November 4, the worst-kept secret in the realm of Republican politics was the “under the radar” race for Republican National Chairman.  Although they were ostensibly working for John McCain and realized that he would handpick the national chairman if elected President, two prominent Republican Party leaders made it clear to me before November 4 that they would run for the party helm.  Our conversations usually concluded with “that’s if McCain loses, of course,” and the inevitable “This is off the record, of course.”

Of course.  And now the election is over and everything is on the record.  The race for Republican National Chairman will be decided at the national committee’s winter meeting in January.  At least three candidates are now actively vying for the job.  Others are near-cinches to enter the race.  The chairmanship will be decided by the 165 members of the RNC –100 national committeemen and committeewomen (two from each state), fifty state chairman, and party leaders from the District of Columbia and the territories.  

Tuesday, former Maryland Lt. Gov. Michael Steele signaled that he would indeed run for the job that so many pundits and bloggers started a boomlet for him to seek in ’06, shortly after he lost a U.S. Senate race.  Now the head of the political training operation GOPAC, Steele was formerly one of the top two elected African-American Republicans in any state.  Articulate, witty, staunchly conservative on most issues (he opposes the death penalty and backs affirmative action), Steele would be considered a capable and camera-friendly voice for his party.  And, as a past state party chairman, he knows how the RNC works.  His major problem appears to be whether the election of the first black RNC chairman would be consider an obvious reaction to the first black President.

On the same day that Steele was sending his signals from a GOPAC meeting in Florida (where Republican governors were also meeting), Michigan State Chairman Saul Anuzis was making official his candidacy for the national job.  Like Steele, Anuzis is considered an effective party spokesman.  Like Obama, he is a first-generation American (his parents were Lithuanian).  Like Mike Hucakbee and Sarah Palin, the former Teamster seeks out and connects with blue-collar audiences (“How many other Republicans buy their shirts at Lands-End?” supporters joke).  A self-styled “Kemp-Gingrich Republican,” the man everyone in the Water Wonderland party calls “Saul” is well-grounded in conservative theory and can debate with the best of them.

Anuzis’s major problem could be an asset.  He’s from Michigan, a “blue state” that could well go “red.”  But it hasn’t.  This year, with Obama easily carrying the state, Republicans lost races for the State Supreme Court and saw two U.S. House districts go Democratic.  In addition, Republicans suffered a net loss of seven seats in the state House of Representatives.  Anuzis backers point out that this had nothing to do with their man but rather with the McCain campaign publicly writing off Michigan a month before the voting.

With both Steele and Anuzis running for chairman, the odds on Newt Gingrich entering the race against two good friends are slimmer than they were when all the “Newt’ll be back” talk started a week ago.  The former speaker would probably love a position that puts him back in the limelight but chances are that his die-hard backers will have to draft him for it.  The chances of that happening are very slim.

South Carolina Chairman Katon Dawson became a candidate for chairman once McCain had conceded the race.  In a state where there are Republican factions around Gov. Mark Sanford and each of the two GOP senators, Dawson not only keeps them all together but has a long record of winning statewide races and legislative contests.  And he is extremely media-friendly: on the day of the Palmetto State’s presidential primary, the chairman found time for an early-morning interview with me as well as the BBC.

Will the party turn to a Southerner?  They did so in 1993, when Mississippi’s Haley Barbour won the job and turned in such an outstanding performance that he is cited to this day as a role model for a national party leader.  But the talk that Republicans have become so dominated by the South is much more widespread now than fifteen years ago, and that may work against Dawson.  

In the second tier of chairman candidates are Florida Chairman Jim Greer and businessman Chip Salzman, formerly the top fundraiser for former Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist and later for Huckabee. Greer, whose state went for Obama and turned out two Republican House Members, is regarded as more moderate than Steele, Dawson, and Anuzis.  Salzman is not nor has he ever been a member of the RNC and, like the College of Cardinals choosing a Pope, this group tends to choose from its own.

And, yes.  The current chairman of the party has hinted he wants to run again.  He was picked as part of a power-sharing arrangement with Florida Sen. Mel Martinez as general chairman.  His name was one that Bill O’Reilly could not come up with on “Good Morning America” earlier this week.  That seems to be the fate of any RNC chairman who serves under a Republican President — a passion for anonymity.  (It’s Mike Duncan, before I forget).