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RNC Chair Frontrunners Say Shoot the Messenger


Candidates for the RNC chairmanship held a debate on Monday. (David Weigel)

Chip Saltsman has put the “magic negro” story behind him. The news that the ex-Mike Huckabee campaign manager and candidate for chairman of the Republican National Committee had sent RNC members a CD of parody songs that included “Barack the Magic Negro” lit up the political press during the slow Christmas week.

But the aftermath of those first frenzied days was not so hard on Saltsman. According to the Politico’s Andy Barr, RNC members were angry at the media for exploiting the story, and some of them considered supporting him because of it. “I would say that’s about right,” Saltsman told The Washington Independent, confirming the Politico’s take.

Image has not been found. URL: http://www.washingtonindependent.com/wp-content/uploads/2008/08/politics.jpgIllustration by: Matt Mahurin

Monday’s debate between Saltsman and the five other candidates for RNC chair — including Mike Duncan, the incumbent chairman crushed under the Obama wave — provided yet more evidence that the obsessions of the “MSM” will have nothing to say about who leads the opposition party. Ken Blackwell, the black RNC chairman contender from Ohio, trumpeted his support of Saltsman during the “magic negro” flap on a leaflet handed out to reporters and spectators. You couldn’t find a better example of the Republican Party’s internal wisdom about what its political problems are right now, or what it needs to do to correct them. According to all but one candidate for the job, the GOP’s fortunes will reverse just as soon as it gets better at messaging and networking with activists. Fix that and they’ve fixed the party.

The debate — the first televised RNC slugfest ever, organizer and moderator Grover Norquist crowed — provided plenty of flashbacks to the debates of the 2007-2008 Republican presidential primaries. George W. Bush was only mentioned when Norquist brought him up. Chances to critique the party were judo-flipped into chances to attack the Democrats, who, in power, were sure to cause a voter backlash.

“The Obama administration has promised tremendous increasing in spending,” said Michigan GOP chair Saul Anuzis, “which they’re either going to pay for with higher taxes or higher deficits. That’s going to create tremendous opportunities for us as a party and as a movement.”

Mike Duncan, the incumbent who won the job two years ago, made everyone understand why he’d initially had to share the role with Florida Sen. Mel Martinez (R) — he spoke as if a sudden burst of charisma could poison him. “We’ve got to get our candidates using the technology,” Duncan said, explaining how the RNC already had the tools and the philosophy it needed to win. “We did that in Georgia for Saxby Chambliss,” he said. “We sent 79 million ad impressions to 600,000 Republicans.” According to Duncan, the GOP only lost in 2008 because of the Bush-damaged brand and tricks by wily Democratic technocrats. “We won the election on Election Day, 2008,” he explained in a glossy handbook (“Leadership You Can Trust”) handed out in the audience. “Early voting, however, resulted in our defeat.”

Blackwell, leaning back in his chair and speaking slowly, was as grim and confident. “When Ken Blackwell speaks,” commented American Spectator managing editor J.P. Freire, “I feel like I’m in trouble for something.” Blackwell framed the GOP’s problems as those of an ossified organization unable to reap the benefits of its good ideas.

“We have to reinvigorate the base and push our resources back to state and county parties,” Blackwell said. “It is only when you decentralize power that you get serious accountability at the local level.” He suggested a “40 under 40 strategy” that would make sure four out of 10 local GOP officials were still looking down the road at middle age.

Saul Anuzis — by one measure the frontrunner for chairmanship, with 12 public commitments from RNC members — used the word “network” as often as Blackwell invoked the name of Ronald Reagan. “It’s nice to talk about technology,” said Anuzis, “but we need to make this part of everything we do.” When Norquist got around to asking the candidates whether they used Twitter, the gleam in Anuzis’s eyes could be seen from the Mall — he has more than 4,000 Facebook friends and nearly 3,000 followers on Twitter, where he types whatever’s on his mind and preaches the gospel of high-tech outreach. At a post-debate reception, Anuzis kept tweeting: “Ken Blackwell seemed to be very proud he had more Facebook friends than me…send more my way :)”.

Saltsman picked up the high-tech banner and flew it high. “The magic of the Obama campaign,” he argued, “was that they had open box solutions that their supporters could use to work better in the communities, with their voters.” Katon Dawson pledged to run more candidates and to talk to more members of minority groups, such as the Hispanics who abandoned the party in 2008. “We are more consistent with that community,” said Dawson, “with their family values and the school choice. But did they listen to us in the last election cycle?”

When Republican consultant Patrick Ruffini asked what issues could galvanize the Republican base, the candidates were back in their comfort zones. Republicans, said Duncan, could oppose the “billion-dollar gamble” that President-elect Obama thinks will stimulate the economy. And Duncan was “willing to put resources in immediately to strike down any attempt to bring back the fairness doctrine in this country.” Saltsman expected the Obama administration to “give us a gift of an overreaching, overpowering government that will limit our freedoms” and, in turn, make more voters into Republicans.

The lone RNC candidate who used the forum to critique the party, not just its messaging, was Michael Steele, the former lieutenant governor of Maryland and current chair of GOPAC. He entered the race nine days after Sen. John McCain’s defeat, announcing on the friendly turf of *Hannity and Colmes. *Conservative activists were thrilled. But Steele is running behind the pack in public commitments from RNC members, although Steele campaign aide Kevin Igoe chalked that up to “a different strategy” of not trumpeting every new endorsement.

“I represent a threat to the system,” Steele explained after the debate. “I want to change it bottom up to top down.”

But Steele’s criticisms of the party have not helped him among conservative activists and RNC members who don’t thrill at being told what they’ve done wrong. “He looks like he knows he’s losing,” whispered one conservative blogger who’d been reading Steele’s body language.

It’s a strange situation for Steele, whom activists consider one of the most charismatic figures in the party, regularly requested to stump for Republicans in close races. The problem is that “change” he’s talking about. While his five rivals for the RNC post discussed the party’s failures in terms of messaging, of technological gaps, and of poor outreach, Steele would launch into existential questions about what the party stood for, who it talked to, and who it had alienated.

“We can Twitter, we can YouTube all you want to,” Steele said, answering a question about reaching out to young voters, “but we need to put young people in the game and let them play. Not just sticking them on committees and rolling them out to see ‘Gee, look who we got,’ like we do with black folks and a whole lot of other folks.”

The not-so-secret truth that’s hurt Steele, and reportedly helped Saltsman, is that Republicans don’t want (or believe they need) a candidate who’ll bring change as dramatic as their 2006 and 2008 election losses. Why do that if the Democrats will overreach and anger voters anyway? After the debate, Steele could be heard grousing about “this ideological stuff” that opponents were using against him — specifically, the claim that he’s soft on abortion and his association with the Republican Leadership Council proves that. A just-for-fun lightning round question about the candidates’ firearms proved, again, how hard Steele’s task would be if the party was looking for cultural validation from its next chief.

“Four handguns and two rifles,” said Duncan.

“Too many to count,” said Dawson.

“Seven,” said Blackwell. “And I’m good.”

“Two,” said Anuzis, “but they wouldn’t let me carry them in Washington, D.C.”

“In my closet at home,” said Saltsman, “I’ve got two 12-gauges, a 20-gauge, three handguns, and a 30.6. And I’ll take you on any time, Ken.”

“None,” said Steele.

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