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168 RNC Members Have Power ... for a Week

Bill Clark/Roll Call
Wisconsin GOP Chairman Reince Priebus (left), one of four people challenging RNC Chairman Michael Steele (right), debates his rivals at a panel in D.C. last week.

The race for Republican National Committee chairman could put a soap opera to shame.

When the 168 RNC members arrive at the National Harbor on Wednesday for the party’s annual winter meeting, they will enjoy brief fame as the chairmanship battle thrusts lesser-known party officials from across the country into the political limelight. They are the Republicans working behind the scenes in their respective states, and many enjoyed substantial victories back home in 2010.

The five candidates for chairman have been campaigning to win over RNC members, each with their own individual interests at play. When the hopefuls can’t win someone’s vote, they ask to be considered as a second choice, since voting often goes to multiple ballots.

The complicated process and unusual rules of the chairmanship vote are just the beginning. Members, who are elected in different ways in each state, must guard their own positions, and some are eyeing higher roles within the party structure.

If history serves as any indicator, the race won’t be over quickly, and relationships can be frayed when it’s over.

“Until you’ve seen it, it’s sort of hard to understand,” former RNC Committeeman David Norcross told Roll Call. “It’s really like an old-time convention. There’s a misconception that the lowest person in votes has to drop out. That is not the case. You can stay in as long as you want.”

In 2009, the RNC elected current Chairman Michael Steele, the former lieutenant governor of Maryland, over four opponents in the course of six ballots. A candidate needs 85 votes to win, but having a small number of votes doesn’t mean a candidate has to drop out. Steele led only in the last two ballots (though he tied with then-Chairman Mike Duncan for the lead on the second ballot).

Previous heated elections took place in 1997 and 1993. In 1997, RNC Vice Chairman Jim Nicholson came from behind Norcross and retiring New Hampshire Gov. Steve Merrill to win. Norcross said Nicholson won when Merrill didn’t keep a promise to drop out and encourage his supporters to vote for Norcross late in the process.

“Merrill and I had an agreement after the fourth ballot that the one with fewer votes gave votes to one with more, and he reneged,” Norcross said. “That made my decision pretty easy.”

Merrill and Norcross both dropped out after the fifth round, leading to Nicholson’s victory. Nicholson started well behind them on the first three ballots but had 74 votes on the fifth ballot.

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