The six contenders for Republican National Committee chair are rolling out every gimmick, plan and endorsement in the hopes of gaining an edge—any edge—in the tight contest for the GOP’s top job.
Just Tuesday, Ken Blackwell, the former Ohio secretary of state, announced that he was forming a ticket with Texas Republican Party Chair Tina Benkiser, who is running for national co-chair of the party. Former Maryland Lt. Gov. Michael Steele unveiled a set of ethics regulations designed to polish the GOP’s tarnished public image.
Earlier this week, Michigan Republican Party Saul Anuzis contacted RNC members to advertise his “Blueprint for a GOP Comeback.”
Not to be outdone, incumbent chair Mike Duncan, who confirmed his intention to seek a second term last week, is making plans for the formation of a new conservative think-tank, the Center for Republican Renewal.
The attention-grabbing stunts are a necessity in a race where the candidates don’t have many chances to confront each other directly. Two of the few opportunities will take place during the first week of January, when candidates will face each other at a debate hosted by the fiscal conservative group Americans for Tax Reform and then later that week when they compete for support from the RNC’s Conservative Steering Committee, which will hold a straw poll and release a list of approved candidates.
There’s still a ways to go in the race, and experienced Republicans point to the 1997 contest for RNC chair – when Jim Nicholson upset a crowded field in the party’s last competitive leadership election – as evidence that anything can happen.
Here’s a look at each candidate’s prospects six weeks out from the start of the RNC’s winter meeting on January 28.
Mike Duncan– As the current committee chair, Duncan knows the party’s insiders better than anyone else in the running. And while his present term in office has left Republicans with mixed feelings – his prolific fundraising doesn’t quite make up, in some leaders’ minds, for the GOP’s devastating November losses – he’s ended on a strong note thanks to Saxby Chambliss’s victory in the Georgia Senate runoff and the GOP’s two House wins in Louisiana.
Most of all, Duncan is benefiting from a divided field of opponents who haven’t developed a consistent critique of his leadership and against whom he could quickly become an unobjectionable consensus candidate.
“If there was a movement that could push Duncan out, I think it would be identifiable at this point,” said one Republican strategist who expects Duncan to be reelected. “I just do not get the feeling that there is going to be some great change.”
Saul Anuzis— Among the field of candidates seeking to become the anti-Duncan, Anuzis stands out for his energetic campaigning and his emphasis on technology. The Michigan GOP chair announced his bid on Twitter and has been hammering away at the theme of tactical innovation. Multiple Republicans noted Anuzis’s big, colorful personality – he rides a Harley-Davidson and sports a goatee as an asset in a race where candidates are struggling to distinguish themselves from an ideologically homogenous field.
Anuzis has also rolled out more public endorsements than any other candidate, drawing heavily on support from blue states like New Jersey and Connecticut and shaping a perception that his candidacy is picking up steam.
“If I had to assign momentum in what has been a very, very sleepy race, I’d assign it to Anuzis,” said another Republican strategist.
Anuzis’s weakness? Michigan has been very tough ground for the GOP in recent cycles, and the support he’s receiving from Republicans back home may not be quite enough to kick voters’ suspicion that he just hasn’t delivered the wins an RC chair needs.
Michael Steele—Steele, a former state party chair who served as Maryland’s lieutenant governor before losing a Senate race in 2006 to then-Rep. Ben Cardin (D-Md.), is essentially tied in second place with Anuzis. Steele announced his candidacy on Fox News Channel’s “Hannity and Colmes” to great fanfare, touting his skills as a political communicator at a time when Republicans lack a high-profile leaders on the national stage.
Steele’s campaign hasn’t gone quite the way he expected it to, according to some Republicans, who believe Steele expected his star power to carry him farther than it has in a race in which many RNC members would prefer to elect one of their own.
And though he’s consistently reaffirmed his commitment to conservative social positions, his association with the moderate Republican Leadership Council has some RNC members uneasy.
“I don’t think there’s any question that he is personally pro-life. I think the only question is how he views the role of social conservatives within the party,” said James Bopp Jr., the influential social conservative who serves as national committeeman for Indiana.
But despite these hiccups, Steele seems destined to make it to the finish line with the clout to make it through multiple ballots. And if he can edge out Anuzis on the first vote he could give Duncan a run for his money.
Katon Dawson– Running a little behind his fellow challengers, but still mounting an energetic and serious campaign, is South Carolina Republican Party Chair Katon Dawson. With a better win-loss record than Anuzis and a closer rapport with RNC members than Steele or Blackwell, Dawson could ride a wave of conservative and Southern support into the late stages of balloting – particularly if the Blackwell-Benkiser gambit falls flat.
The Palmetto State Republican is billing his campaign as a vehicle for outside-the-Beltway competence and emphasizing the need to return control over the RNC to successful state-level leaders – a message that’s certainly in tune with the mood on the committee.
Dawson’s major obstacle is, in a word, Southernness. At a moment when some are labeling the GOP a regional party, Dawson may not look (and sound) like the change the GOP needs. And his critics are only too eager to hype up a damaging story that Dawson belonged to an all-white country club as recently as last summer.
Ken Blackwell– The former Cincinnati mayor and Ohio secretary of state entered the RNC campaign late – on December 5 – and has lagged behind the other contenders. While his candidacy hasn’t exactly caught fire, it got a potentially significant boost this week in the shape of his partnership with Benkiser, who could help Blackwell appeal to the significant social conservative bloc on the committee.
Blackwell has also moved forward with a series of moves that appear designed to capture the RNC’s fiscal conservative vote, receiving the endorsements of publisher Steve Forbes and Club for Growth head Pat Toomey. Endorsements don’t necessarily pack much of a punch in an internal election like this one, but every little bit helps.
Like Steele, however, Blackwell’s not a member of the RNC and he still faces skepticism about both his qualifications and his viability. The Ohioan still has some catching up to do in this race and a running mate alone won’t do the trick.
“He’s a very plausible candidate,” said one member of the RNC, who cautioned: “He’s neither fish nor fowl. He’s not a figure with national prominence and he’s not a figure with experience keeping the trains running on time.”
Chip Saltsman– A former chairman of the Tennessee Republican Party and campaign manager to Mike Huckabee, Saltsman has more to gain than any other candidate from a protracted, multi-ballot knie fight for the chairmanship. The 40-year-old has been running a vigorous race against more established candidates, though he’s had to distance himself from the Huckabee campaign in a race where no one wants to support a stalking horse for 2012.
Saltsman knows he’s an underdog, but as a student of GOP politics he also knows that once an RNC race gets past the first or second ballot, all bets are off. If Saltsman can become a second- or third-choice candidate for a significant number of RNC members, and survive the first ballot, he could try and follow the Jim Nicholson path to victory. Yet even if he is unsuccessful, he’s established himself as a name to be taken very seriously in years to come.