When the Republican National Committee met in Washington, D.C., two years ago, the party was coming off two brutal election cycles and looking for a road map out of the political wilderness. After a highly successful midterm cycle, the circumstances have changed heading into 2012.
As the RNC meets in the Washington area again this week, its goal is to begin preparations for a well-funded and organized presidential election cycle. That groundwork starts in earnest Friday with the selection of a chairman to lead the party through the presidential nomination.
When the 168-member RNC picked Michael Steele as chairman in 2009, many in the party were in a state of puzzled contemplation over a second straight cycle of losses and seeking an image makeover. On top of a chairman’s usual duties, some were looking for a new face of the franchise.
Speaking at the 2009 winter meeting, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said that in the wake of the 2006 and 2008 elections, “My concern is that unless we do something to adapt, our status as a minority party may become too pronounced for an easy recovery.”
Now that they’ve notched major electoral gains, members are more interested in a behind-the-scenes player who can shore up the RNC’s finances as they prepare for a 2012 showdown.
“We don’t need a spokesman this time,” Utah Republican Party Chairman Dave Hansen told Roll Call. “We need someone who is going to go in and raise money and organize the committee.”
Texas Committeeman Bill Crocker agreed and ranked the importance of the next chairman’s duties in order: make the organization work efficiently, raise money and control the message.
The feeling within GOP circles is that person will not be the current chairman, who shocked some within the committee by running for another term. Steele was often criticized over the past two years for financial mismanagement and disorganization.
His chances at re-election took another hit two weeks after the election, when RNC Political Director Gentry Collins announced his resignation in a scathing letter released to the press.
Steele was also criticized for the amount of time he spent on TV, and the candidates running for his job — Reince Priebus, Maria Cino, Ann Wagner and Saul Anuzis — have indicated that will not be their focus. With several potential presidential candidates and Speaker John Boehner (Ohio) likely to be in the spotlight this year, the party will have plenty of faces to promote.
“I want them to be able to speak when they need to,” Oklahoma GOP Chairman Matt Pinnell said in an interview. “But I think it’s more important that there’s a phone attached to their ear at all times, making fundraising calls and communicating with the states to make sure their ground games are well-funded.”
Republican consultant Terry Holt agreed. “The chairman of the party is always going to be a party spokesperson. But as we move in to a presidential cycle, we’re going to need mechanics, money and message coordination more than we’re going to need a talk show guest.”
McConnell and others at the meeting two years ago maintained the party should not vacate its principles, but that major changes were needed to compete with Democrats — financially, organizationally, technologically and in voter outreach. President Barack Obama had won the youth and Latino votes by more than 30 points in 2008, and Steele sold himself as a leader that could market the party’s principles beyond its base.
The focus for the next chairman will almost exclusively be fundraising and building a coordinated campaign at the grass-roots level to compete with Obama’s campaign.
With Obama back on the ticket in 2012, Republicans are expecting Democrats to get tens of millions more voters to the polls than they did in 2010, when the GOP posted a net gain of 63 House seats, six Senate seats and picked up nearly 700 state legislative seats.
“Our ground game has to be well-funded in targeted states, and that is a big focus I know with a lot of these committee members,” Pinnell said. “We’re talking about raising $400 million here.”
Finances are a top priority, as major donors shifted their contributions in 2010 from the RNC to other campaign committees and GOP groups, such as American Crossroads. But the RNC’s unique role as a financial conduit for the Republican presidential nominee makes it imperative that the committee’s fundraising abilities are at full strength.
This was the first complaint Collins listed in his five-page resignation letter. The RNC raised about $50 million less in 2010 than in the last nonpresidential cycle, in 2006. The other half of the financial equation is spending, which Collins also lambasted. After starting the 2010 cycle with a surplus of more than $13 million, the RNC ended it with a debt of at least $15 million.
“The RNC has to get its fiscal house in order, demonstrate that we can be organized, as well as getting out of debt and rebuilding our donor base,” Holt said. “We have to get it exactly right in order to compete at the highest level and win the presidential election.”
Unlike Steele’s situation in 2009, the next chairman will have just one year to get things turned around; after a presidential nominee is chosen next year, the RNC will essentially become an arm of the nominee’s campaign. That could eventually include major changes in staff — including senior-level positions and the appointment of a vice chairman — and will require painstaking coordination.
“Beating President Obama will probably be the next chairman’s goal every single day,” former South Carolina GOP Chairman Katon Dawson said. Dawson finished second to Steele in the 2009 election. “That takes fundraising and organization, and being completely accountable to the 168 members.”
Correction: Jan. 13, 2011
The article misspelled Reince Priebus’ name.