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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.

In 1993, losing the race for RNC chairman did little to slow down political careers. Spence Abraham (Mich.) and John Ashcroft (Mo.) went on to become Senators after their RNC bids. Haley Barbour, now governor of Mississippi and a potential presidential candidate, won on the third ballot after leading on the first and second ballots.

This week, Steele will face Wisconsin GOP Chairman Reince Priebus, former Michigan GOP Chairman Saul Anuzis, former Missouri GOP Chairwoman Ann Wagner and former RNC official Maria Cino in the chairman’s race. Only Priebus and Anuzis, now Michigan’s national committeeman, are current members of the committee.

A number of rules unique to the RNC guide the chairman’s race. For example, a majority of three states’ delegations must nominate a candidate for him to make the ballot. Since each state has three RNC members, that means at least six people from three states must nominate the candidate. However, nominators aren’t required to vote for the candidate they nominated.

That rule may be the reason that former RNC Political Director Gentry Collins dropped out of the race. Collins had three public supporters from three different states, including only state party Chairman Matt Strawn from his home state of Iowa. The other two Iowa committee members endorsed Priebus.

Having worked hard to earn their places in the club, many RNC members are more inclined to anoint a fellow member as chairman. They look for a chairman with fundraising and management abilities, the primary skills needed to lead a national party.

The members are enjoying rare moments in the headlines as the endorsement scramble continues ahead of Friday’s vote. Who are these behind-the-scenes party players?

Each state, plus Washington, D.C., American Samoa, Guam, Northern Mariana Islands, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands, has three RNC members: the state party chairman, the committeeman and the committeewoman. But every state has the right to establish its own means of electing them.

In some, such as D.C., Republican voters select committee members during the presidential primary. In others, a state central committee chooses members either at a state convention or committee meeting. Some states have term limits, but members often leave the committee between terms, prompting special elections.

Alec Poitevint, who first joined the committee as Georgia GOP chairman in 1989, said there have been times when he had two votes on the committee, as both the chairman and committeeman.

Several members have joined the committee in the past few weeks. New North Dakota GOP Chairman Stan Stein told Roll Call shortly after his election in December that he would “lean on” the state’s committeeman and committeewoman to make a decision in the chairman’s race; before long he joined them in endorsing Priebus.

The RNC has rules designed to increase gender parity in the committee’s leadership: When the chairman is male, the co-chairman must be female. Only one woman, Mary Louise Smith, has ever served as chairman of the committee. Accordingly, while Steele has served as chairman, Wyoming Committeewoman Jan Larimer has been co-chairwoman.

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