Recognizing that Republican primary battles in 2010 ended with some critical general election losses, the candidates who want to lead the national party through the next cycle said Monday they would again stay out of primaries and stressed the GOP must remain a big tent party.
The hopefuls vying to be the Republican National Committee’s next chairman promoted their own records and talked about the need to unite establishment and tea party Republicans for 2012 as they debated Monday. The candidates also stressed a desire to give state parties some autonomy to run campaigns back home.
Five of the six candidates are former party chairmen, and party chairmen make up a third of the RNC’s membership. Chairman Michael Steele said no longer sending Capitol Hill staffers to battleground states 72 hours before the election and sending funding to all 50 states in 2010 were part of his effort to give states the freedom to make their own political choices.
“At the end of the day, the national party’s role is to stay out of the state party’s business when it comes to the election of their nominees for office, period,” Steele said. “Our rules are very clear about that.”
Each candidate straddled the line between holding Republican candidates to a strict party platform and welcoming people who might disagree with that platform. All said they would promote social conservative values, and all said they’d agree to a pledge that would require candidates who change party allegiances to return money from the RNC. The current chairman, though, cautioned the others about demanding purity in candidates.
“We cannot be a party that sits back with a litmus test and excludes,” Steele said. “A national chairman cannot go into a state and say you’re less Republican than you are.”
In 2010, several tea-party-backed candidates won Republican primaries, with most political observers believing that cost the party at least two Senate seats. Conservative groups say they don’t plan to back off in 2012, with potential primary threats on the horizon to sitting GOP Members.
Monday’s debate finally put on display the man all the candidates have been running against. Steele went from being the elephant in the room in a December debate to being present and ready to defend his record.
“My record stands for itself,” Steele said. “We won. I was asked to win elections, I was asked to raise money, $192 million over the last two years.”
Since he was elected in January 2009, Steele has been criticized for alienating donors, not raising enough funds, spending funds in places where some strategists felt Republicans couldn’t win, and dividing his time between the chairmanship and other priorities. RNC members were surprised when he announced in December that he would run for re-election, even as the field to replace him became crowded and his former allies starting endorsing his rivals. Steele has emphasized Republicans’ successes in Congressional and gubernatorial elections across the country in 2009 and 2010 as evidence he should be re-elected, but he lost two top staffers on Monday and has scant support for re-election.
The candidates stressed the need for change at the committee. Some have built their campaigns up by contrasting themselves with Steele, emphasizing their own management and fundraising experience, and Monday’s debate was no exception. Sitting to the right of Steele, former RNC official Maria Cino laid out her résumé.
“I’ve trained for this job most of my life,” she said, citing her time working at the National Republican Congressional Committee in the mid-1990s, serving as co-chairwoman of the RNC and in the Bush administration. She said she has managed “every essential program” during a presidential election within budget.
Former Missouri GOP Chairwoman Ann Wagner may have hit the chairman hardest when she credited third party groups with Republicans’ recent successes.
“Let us not forget, the Tea Party Patriot and grass-roots movement is why we had such victories in 2010. It absolutely is, ladies and gentlemen, and we can’t forget it,” she said.
Former Michigan GOP Chairman Saul Anuzis, who also ran for chairman in 2009, said the committee is “at a moment of crisis.”
“I think you need somebody who can articulate the message, who can make sure the trains run on time and who can raise the money necessary to fund the programs we’re going to need,” he said.
But Wisconsin GOP Chairman Reince Priebus, who served as the RNC’s general counsel under Steele and managed Steele’s 2009 campaign, avoided drawing a contrast between himself and the chairman. He leads the public count of RNC voters now. He repeatedly referred to his success in the Badger State, where Republicans took control of both state legislative bodies, the governor’s office, a U.S. Senate seat and two U.S. House seats in 2010. Priebus was asked whether the RNC was even necessary given the success of third party groups.
“Well, I think that we can drive the ground game pretty darn well,” he said.
The candidates agreed that elected Republicans’ worst mistake over the past ten years was too much spending, and Cino got applause when she took it a step farther.
“First, passing McCain-Feingold. That was a mistake,” she said. “Second is what everyone else has said, you know, losing our way on spending.”
The debate had lighter moments. During a “lightning round” at the end, Wagner thought that a question about a favorite book was actually a question about a favorite bar, and she fumbled for an answer. Steele, meanwhile, earned a few laughs when he named his favorite book as “War and Peace,” then added, “It was the best of times and the worst of times.”
Sponsored by Americans for Tax Reform and the Daily Caller, the debate attracted five candidates, in addition to Steele. Former RNC Political Director Gentry Collins dropped out of the race on Sunday and didn’t participate in the debate. Questions were submitted online in advance, and Internet users were allowed to vote for the questions they liked best.
It was the second debate of the short race for RNC chairman. The Democratic National Committee, in contrast, has not held debates for chairmen, and its current chairman, former Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine, is expected to serve another two-year term at the helm.
The 168 members of the RNC will vote for chairman on Jan. 14 at the RNC’s winter meeting at National Harbor in Maryland.