You know you’re in trouble when you’re running for re-election, and your challengers don’t even bother to bring up your controversial record. Just ask Michael Steele. The other candidates for chairman of the Republican National Committee – Saul Anuzis, Maria Cino, Reince Priebus and Ann Wagner – pulled their punches because they knew they could. Steele is, as Washington Post conservative blogger Jennifer Rubin put it, “kaput.” So now that we know who won’t be chairman, it’s time to move on to other questions. Who will? And what should Republicans expect from a new chairman?
Steele claims he deserves credit for the Republican wave of 2010. But for most, the argument is whether the RNC had nothing to do with the 2010 landslide or very little. Independent groups showed they could raise and spend money and even lift candidates to victory in the last cycle. And some rightly wonder if the national committee even matters anymore.
But 2012 won’t be like 2010. The Democrats’ enthusiasm gap will be a thing of the past, and it will be tough for Republicans to match the campaign resources and infrastructure of President Obama. He already has begun to reshuffle his governing team, assemble his campaign team and reorganize the supporting cast of his re-election bid.
Obama’s campaign will rival or exceed the organizational prowess of the well-oiled machine that was the Bush 2004 campaign, and it will dwarf that effort in resources with perhaps as much as $1 billion in overall funding. Organizing For America, the activist group with the seven-figure-long email list, will be back in full force looking to erase Republican gains from the top of the ticket on down. And the momentum that brought success to so many Republicans in 2010 will have abated as those 87 GOP House freshmen find themselves judged by their votes and accomplishments, not just their aspirations.
Against this potent storm, the new RNC leader will face significant donor ambivalence. Republican-leaning independent organizations took up some of the fundraising slack in 2010. Still, a lot of donors sat out the last cycle and are reluctant, as yet, to jump back in. If the RNC can’t quickly address real concerns about its ability to put donor dollars to good use, it could find itself facing an uphill battle against the proven fundraising record of the president.
The new leader also must be prepared to implement an effective get-out-the-vote operation from Day One. Time is short. Effective GOTV efforts can take months if not years to build. And the job can’t be outsourced. Only the RNC has the ability to activate voters on a national scale and the year-to-year continuity to plan and commit resources ahead of time. Campaigns and issue groups come and go each cycle, and voter enthusiasm is not the same as voters at the polling place. This must be the top priority of the new chairman.
The next RNC leader will need to make tough choices. A 50-state plan sounds lofty, but the reality is that the 2012 election outcome will hinge on a much smaller number of states. Resources must go where they will do the most good, and political needs must trump political favors every time.
Beyond that, the RNC leader must reach out to coalitions – not just party leaders and insiders. The party must build strong ties to the Hispanic community, particularly in states such as Florida, Nevada and New Mexico where Hispanic support could determine the outcome in 2012 (and where Republicans Marco Rubio, Brian Sandoval and Susana Martinez were successful in 2010). This will require significant shoe leather (and thousands of frequent flyer miles), not just conference calls and sound bites from headquarters.
As the Republican National Committee convenes later this month, members will have much to ponder. Let’s hope they pick a leader who has a plan, who can assemble a strong team and who stands ready to get to work on rebuilding the party infrastructure from his or her first day on the job.