RNC Race Is Red-Hot

Last Saturday evening (January 17), sitting in the courtyard of the Intercontinental resort in Paradise Valley, Arizona, the Grand Canyon State Republican Chairman Randy Pullen told me he had decided earlier that day whom he would vote for as Republican National Chairman at the RNC winter meeting, January 28-31st.

“So who’s your choice?” I asked, anxiously.

“No one I’m going to tell you about,” Pullen shot back.  The Arizona chairman explained that “if I tell you and you go write about it, I won’t draw a peaceful breath for the next two weeks.”  So Pullen’s vote in the six-candidate race for his party’s national chairman would remain with him, at least until the voting was over. (A week after we spoke, Pullen survived a challenge to his own re-election as chairman by less than fifty votes out of about 1,000 cast, and thus will be coming to Washington at the end of January for “the big vote.”)

Now, with days to go, the contest between incumbent National Chairman Mike Duncan and five opponents has grown incendiary.  Insults and accusations among the contenders fly like buckshot, and the Internet fuels the invective daily.  

One contender has come under fire for lacking a college degree and another for his management of an organization to train GOP candidates.  Still another, former Tennessee Party Chairman Chip Saltsman, came under such attack for sending out a CD that included the satiric song “Barack the Magic Negro” that he is unlikely to have the minimum votes required to be put in nomination for national chairman at the Washington, D.C. meeting next weekend.

For a party that has just gone through its worst back-to-back election cycles since the Great Depression, the surge of infighting could be good:  maybe a shakeup is in order.

But this is an “insider’s race,” not a primary. Its players are party operatives and not the “grass-roots” that candidates for chairman always talk about.  A bid for chairman means jetting the country (for at least two candidates, in private jets), wining and dining the small universe of electors (party chairmen, and the national committeeman and committeewoman from all of the states and territories) to secure “the magic 85” — a majority of the 168 RNC members needed to win.

Given that universe, it is no surprise to find Bush-appointed Chairman Duncan not only running again but actually running ahead of his rivals in most counts.

Duncan is identified with the just-departed President, and he started as the RNC operating head with Florida Sen. Mel Martinez as “general chairman.” It was an arrangement most committee members hated. Duncan has had two years to know and woo those doing the voting.  Duncan-backers on the RNC usually cite the Kentuckian’s “nice guy” persona and that his fund-raising prowess got the party out of debt as reasons for re-electing him.

Such RNC mainstays as Committeemen Ron Kaufman of Massachusetts and Bob Bennett of Ohio and Party Secretary Connie Nicholas of North Dakota are working the phones hard for Duncan.  To the surprise of some, a few outspoken conservatives such as State Chairmen Kris Kobach of Kansas and Ron Carey of Minnesota have weighed in for Duncan as well.  His vote total is now forty-something, and few doubt that Duncan will lead on the first ballot.

And that is also Duncan’s dilemma: if, after two years of cultivating support, he cannot raise his votes closer to the “magic 85” right off the bat, then how can he hope to gain more votes on the second ballot and beyond?  

“Duncan’s first place showing is very likely good for one ballot and no more,” said veteran Massachusetts Republican political consultant Holly Robichaud. “There’s no where for him to go but down after that.”

Surging fast in the close is South Carolina State Chairman Katon Dawson, who probably has 35 or more votes committed to him privately or publicly.  A small businessman and stalwart conservative, Dawson has a compelling story about taking the helm of his almost-broke state party in ’02 and steering it to winning both U.S. Senate seats and all statewide offices but one over the next six years.  In his words, “this race [for national chairman] is about winning.”

Along with most of his fellow Southerners on the RNC, Dawson has solid backing from committee members from Iowa, New Mexico, Pennsylvania, North Dakota and other states outside the South.

Dawson has even turned a potentially harmful story about once belonging to a whites-only club into a positive — something that is raised against him almost exclusively by the liberal media, he notes.  

“I’ve been asked about this a few times and I’ve told my story,” Dawson told me, recalling how he resigned from the club after leading efforts to integrate it.  “It really isn’t an issue anywhere but in the press.”

Michigan State Chairman Saul Anuzis is probably third in terms of committed votes, counting them somewhere in the mid-twenties.  At other times, this son of Lithuanian immigrants and self-styled “Kemp-Gingrich Republican” would be the natural choice of conservatives.  What is keeping him from a stronger showing on the first ballot is that 1) runners-up Michael Steele and Ken Blackwell eat into support that the Michigander’s backers feel would be his, and 2) that his own state GOP suffered decisive across-the-board losses in ’06 and ’08.

Anuzis makes the case that having experienced defeat in a blue state, he has learned lessons that will help him win nationally.  Moreover, he told a group of reporters in Washington, “If you set ’06 and ’08 as the bar for national chairman, you rule out everyone from outside the South.”

Steele, former lieutenant governor of Maryland and head of GOPAC, is widely considered the most telegenic choice.  His commercials as the ’06 Republican Senate nominee in Maryland and his address to the Republican National Convention last year won him legions of admirers nationwide.  But, fairly or unfairly, Steele is perceived as somewhat less than conservative.  Recent statements he made in which he appeared to embrace former New Jersey Gov. Christine Whitman’s pro-choice group fanned the flames of skepticism about the Marylander.  At this point, his vote total is perhaps in the low-to-mid twenties.

No one has ever claimed that former Ohio Secretary of State Blackwell is less than a “good as Goldwater” conservative.  The onetime national co-chairman of Steve Forbes’ presidential campaign and head of the winning marriage initiative in the Buckeye State, Blackwell is backed by many heads of national conservative groups:  Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council (which employs Blackwell), David Keene of the American Conservative Union, and Phyllis Schlafly of the Eagle Forum.

Therein is Blackwell’s dilemma.  Many on the RNC salute his conservatism but see him as a candidate of outside groups.  The Ohioan’s backers are legion outside the RNC, but inside (where he has only now just gotten to meet potential backers), the ranks of his supporters are much fewer — probably twelve-to-fifteen at his point.  It is not even certain whether any of the three votes from his home state will go to him.

That’s why I won’t close with any predictions.  Too many on the RNC are playing their cards close to their vests.  From covering chairman’s races in ’93 and ’97, I know first-hand of people who were counted in the camp of one candidate only to confess to me later they voted for another.  And, like Randy Pullen, many do not want the harassment.  

So sit back, relax, and get ready for a long day and night of balloting on Friday.