Conservatives Ask RNC Chair Candidates to Debate

If the nation’s conservative leaders have their way, candidates for chairman of the Republican National Committee will respond to a detailed questionnaire and appear in a public debate before the party selects its leader at its winter meeting January 28-31.

At a private meeting yesterday, leaders of the some of the most respected conservative organizations agreed that the candidates vying for the Republican helm should appear in a debate — hopefully, they agreed, one that is televised.  The premier mover behind the proposed debate was veteran anti-tax leader Grover Norquist, head of Americans for Tax Reform (ATR),  In confirming that the ATR would begin organizing a forum for candidates for chairman, Norquist told me “we’re going to work with bloggers to develop the question, and it will be open to CSPAN.”

There was virtually no dissent over the concept of a debate at the meeting, which was held in Washington.  As one of the participants told me, “It doesn’t matter if it hasn’t been done before.  When we don’t have control of the White House or either House of Congress for the first time in sixteen years, then the Republican chairman becomes one of the most important political palyers and spokesmen for the opposition party.  So a debate becomes important.”

Another participant in the meeting had brought a proposed questionnaire for declared and possible candidates for chairman.  Virginia’s Republican National Committeeman Morton C. Blackwell shared his questionaire with the other conservatives at the meeting, pointing out that he had been asked at an earlier meeting of prominent conservatives to “compile a list of relevant questions and to ask the candidates and prospective candidates to answer them.”  

Blackwell’s sixteen-page questionnaire is divided into three categories: party matters, such as asking the candidate what he or she would do to make sure social issues are addressed and whether that candidate would speak out against increased government spending and regulations; questions related to consultants, such as whether the prospective chairman would compile a list of favored consultants and pressure state parties to hire them and whether he or she would prevent hiring of consultants who warp campaign budgets to spend considerably on commissionable advertising; and personal attributes and plans, such as whether the next RNC head would assure conservatives that money would not be directed to non-conservative candidates over conservatives.

“Many of these questions, which I have rather arbitrarily split into three groups, have never been asked before,” said Blackwell, the youngest delegate to the 1964 Republican National Convention that nominated Barry Goldwater for President and now in his 20th year as Republican National Committeeman from Virginia, “but all of them should be asked now — and answered.”

At this writing, there are five active candidates for the chairmanship:  State Party Chairmen Saul Anuzis of Michigan and Katon Dawson of South Carolina; former Lieutenant Govenror Michael Steele of Maryland, incumbent RNC head Mike Duncan, and businessman and former Tennessee State Chairman Chip Saltsman.  Outgoing Office of Management and Budget Director Jim Nussle is also mentioned as a possible candidate for chairman.

Two of the five candidates praised the proposed debate and questionnaire.  Anuzis told me that “it’s a great idea to have a debate and forum about the future of our party.  I agreed to participate as soon as I was notified.  It’s a great way to allow grassroots activists to be part of the process.”

Saltsman agreed, saying that “the debate and the questionnaire are good opportunities to let folks know where you stand.  I’ve been answering questions every day since I got in the race.”