RNC Chair Race: The Fix's Final Handicapping
The 168-member Republican National Committee will gather tomorrow morning to choose its next chairman and yet even those closest to this most insider of votes acknowledge they have little idea who will emerge victorious.
The RNC race has been almost entirely overshadowed by the election, transition and inauguration of President Barack Obama and, at times, has looked more like a race for high school student council than for the chairmanship of a political party.
The entire process -- dominated as it has been by anonymous nasty-grams sent via email -- has left many neutral Republican strategists shaking their heads at the pettiness of the contest (at a time when Obama is focused on "big" ideas) and what they believe to be the lack of star power in the field.
Critics aside, someone has to win tomorrow and below you'll find our handicapping of the field.
At the philosophical level, there are two dynamics playing out in the race.
The first is a choice between change and more of the same. Mike Duncan, the current RNC Chairman who is seeking another term, is, without question, the more of the same candidate -- arguing that he did as good a job as possible at the helm of the party in 2008 and that a steady hand is needed to guide the GOP back to relevance in the coming years.
Any number of other candidates are grasping for the "change" mantle with former Lt. Gov. Michael Steele the most effective messenger due to his status as one of the few African American elected officials in the GOP and his strident criticism of the presidency of George W. Bush.
The other dynamic is between committee members and outsiders. For the last eight years, RNC members have seen their chairmen foisted upon them by Bush with little input or say over how the committee runs.
Now that the party is out of power, there is a strong sentiment among many RNC members to pick "one of their own" to run the committee, thereby ensuring that they retain a measure of control over its decisions between now and 2012.
Duncan, as the current chair, is the strongest committee candidate, although South Carolina Republican Party Chairman Katon Dawson and Michigan Republican Party Chairman Saul Anuzis also can make the case that they understand and represent the interests of the members of the committee.
These crosscurrents -- not to mention the near-certainty that it will take multiple ballots (Three? Four? More?) for a candidate to break the 85-vote threshold necessary to win -- make hard and fast predictions extremely difficult.
Our informed sense, derived from conversations with a variety of operatives both aligned with a particular candidate and neutral, of where each man stands (with their likely number of votes on the first ballot) is below. Agree or disagree? The comments section is open.
1. Mike Duncan (48-60 votes on first ballot): Outwardly, the Duncan forces portray supreme confidence -- arguing that he has been slowly building support since the November election among committee members. And, there is almost no debate that Duncan will lead on the first ballot. But, does he get a vote total in the high 40s or the low 60s? That makes a HUGE difference. Under the first scenario, he may well be done. Under the second, he would continue to be the favorite on the second ballot. Sources following the race closely say that the Duncan campaign has gotten very jittery over the last 72 hours -- not a good sign.
2. Michael Steele (40 votes): The Steele campaign is doing everything it can to portray the race as a narrowing to their candidate and Duncan in the final days. They said last night that they now have 39 supporters -- although only 18 of them are public -- and Jim Dyke, who is advising Steele, said "whether it's on the second or the sixth ballot the Lieutenant Governor is in the strongest position to take on the current chairman." Steele is currently regarded as the strongest alternative to Duncan and probably must finish no lower than second on the first ballot (and subsequent ballots) to maintain momentum. But, do lingering questions surrounding his conservative credentials and the fact that he is not currently a committee member complicate his path to 85 votes?
3.Katon Dawson (30 votes): Dawson is, without question, the candidate with the momentum in the field. All sides acknowledge that Dawson -- once left for dead after revelations that he had been a member of a whites-only country club -- is moving up the ranks quickly thanks in large part to the consolidation of the south behind his candidacy. Dawson allies cast the country club incident as a strength for Dawson, evidence that he can take a hard punch and get up off of the mat. Dawson detractors insist that if the party elects him today, the country club association will dominate news headlines and put the GOP in a very uncomfortable position. Either way, Dawson is now a force to be reckoned with in the race.
4. Saul Anuzis (mid 20s): Anuzis may have peaked a bit too soon in the race as he appeared to be the "it" candidate during the early part of this month but seems to have lost some of that velocity of late. Anuzis is probably the most charismatic member of the race (with the possible exception of Steele) and his personal magnetism has made him a popular figure among committee members. Of late, however, doubts have crept into the minds of some RNC voters about whether Anuzis is more a political operative than a party leader. While most people we talked to saw Anuzis as a long shot to win, they also believe he is a potentially key power broker. Where Anuzis and his voters go to if he steps aside could well decide the winner.
5. Ken Blackwell (Teens): Blackwell was the last candidate into the race and, for a little while, appeared to clawing his way into the top tier. That movement has slowed considerably, however, as Blackwell has struggled to grow his support beyond the strongest social conservatives on the committee. Duncan's camp believes that if Blackwell drops out, much of his support will naturally move to the current chairman. If Blackwell's bloc moves en masse to Duncan, then the incumbent could well be positioned to win. If Blackwell's support fractures among the candidates, Duncan could be in a tough position.
6. Chip Saltsman (N/A): Saltsman, who managed former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee's presidential campaign, was a hot candidate in late 2008 -- until he sent a CD to supporters that included the parody song "Barack the Magic Negro." His support dissolved almost immediately and never came back. As of this posting, it's not clear whether Saltsman will be able to qualify for the ballot tomorrow as it requires two RNC members from three different states willing to formally nominate him. Even if he does make the ballot, he is a non-factor.
January 29, 2009; 3:34 PM ET
Categories: Republican Party
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