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Roll Call

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.

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.

Should Wagner or Cino win, Larimer and her opponent, Florida Committeewoman and RNC Secretary Sharon Day, would be excluded from the race for co-chairman. If that happens, Louisiana GOP Chairman Roger Villere Jr. has announced he would run for co-chairman, a spot that he will only be considered for if one of the women are victorious for the top spot.

Gender rules have been altering the committee for decades. Priscilla Rakestraw, the longest-serving member of the RNC, said she became a member in 1975 when the Delaware delegation was filled entirely by men and they realized they needed a woman to satisfy the rules. She became the youngest member of the RNC at the time.

Now, Rakestraw supports Cino for the chairmanship. She said she’s “such a fan of Jan Larimer” but hopes that if Cino wins, Larimer could find another role in the RNC. In 2009, Rakestraw helped with Duncan’s campaign and then voted for Anuzis after Duncan dropped out. Her loyalties were so deep that she refused to vote in the final round after Anuzis dropped out after getting only 20 votes on the fifth ballot.

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