For a party out of political power, the election of its new national chairman is often the first clue to its future direction.
After overwhelming electoral routs a generation ago, Republicans and Democrats signified their desire to turn from ideology to pragmatism by electing Ray Bliss and Bob Strauss, respectively, as their party chairs. Both moves helped regain the presidency four years later.
Similarly, this week’s Republican National Committee election of its new chairman may be the first sign of whether the GOP will take a more ideological or pragmatic course for the next two years.
But the election is stacked because each state has three votes, meaning that voter-rich California, Texas, Florida and New York have no more say than the smaller, more conservative bastions of the South and Mountain West.
As a result, all six candidates have stressed their conservative credentials. They include two blacks, the outspokenly conservative former Ohio Secretary of State Ken Blackwell and Maryland’s Michael Steele, who has a more moderate image; two veteran state party chairs, Katon Dawson of South Carolina and Saul Anuzis of Michigan; a former state chair, Chip Saltsman of Tennessee; and the genial incumbent chairman, Mike Duncan of Kentucky.
They have sought to sell their candidacies to the 168 RNC voting members through joint appearances and a far larger number of behind-the-scenes contacts. Besides communicating the party’s traditional conservative values, each has vowed to update the party’s electoral machinery to match the Obama machine.
But history suggests the symbolism each candidate brings to the position will be at least as important as his abilities. That’s certainly one way to judge who might help the GOP most over the next two years.
For example, Saltsman’s election would be tacit endorsement of his bad taste in sending committee members a recording of a parody of the new president first broadcast by Rush Limbaugh and titled “Barack the Magic Negro.”
Blackwell, who joined several others in rejecting criticism of Saltsman, would put the party machinery under an outspoken conservative ideologue who drew just 37 percent of the vote in losing his 2006 Ohio gubernatorial bid.
Electing Dawson or Anuzis would send contradictory signals. Dawson has presided over substantial GOP success in a predominantly Republican state, but choosing him would strengthen the perception that the GOP has become a Southern regional party.
On the other hand, Anuzis has correctly stressed the need to appeal to blue-collar voters and suburbanites. But his state party has performed poorly in a crucial electoral state, despite its struggling local economy.
Steele, an attractive spokesman during four years as lieutenant governor in heavily Democratic Maryland, would provide a good counterpart to President Obama. But his election might be hampered by fears he is a closet moderate.
An unexpected factor has been Duncan’s spirited bid to retain the chairmanship. He has been a good fundraiser, but even some backers concede he isn’t the best spokesman. Besides, his retention might signify status quo after an election that saw significant GOP defeats at all levels.
Beyond the symbolism, a party chairman can influence events. The next chairman needs to deal with the decision by last year’s Republican National Convention to allow the committee to revise the presidential primary calendar. Another challenge is to maintain financial parity in a challenging fundraising environment created by the recession and the GOP’s poor short-term prospects.
Being a successful chairman can lead to higher office.
Both Democrat Strauss and Republican Bill Brock landed posts as the president’s special trade representative after their parties regained the White House. Democrat Ron Brown and Republican Jim Nicholson received Cabinet posts. Republican Haley Barbour went into elective politics, won Mississippi’s governorship and is now mentioned as a potential 2012 presidential candidate.
However, outgoing Democratic chair Howard Dean has been unable to land a top job, though his partisans credit his efforts to put staffers into all 50 states with broadening Obama’s electoral coalition.
The GOP election pales alongside that one. But its winner will become a familiar face to television viewers, given the paucity of top-level Republicans who are effective advocates for their party.