New RNC Chairman Faces Big Challenges
WASHINGTON—The new Republican Party chairman’s celebration may be short-lived.
From the get-go, Reince Priebus faces a ton of tough tasks in the wake of Michael Steele’s troubled tenure.
Priebus must dig the party out of a $22 million hole. He must prepare the GOP to take on President Barack Obama. He must unite a GOP in the midst of an identity crisis fueled by the tea party.
He must restore credibility to a national party whose power has diminished over time, and particularly in the past two years under Steele.
Steele watched from the sidelines as several GOP-leaning outside groups formed to assume campaign functions that the party historically has managed, including fundraising, advertising and get-out-the-vote efforts.
Major donors and veteran operatives worried about Steele’s stewardship stepped in to perform tasks they argued the Republican National Committee wasn’t equipped to do under him.
Even so, Priebus insisted after his victory that the RNC was “very relevant.“ Yet as Democrat Bill Clinton could attest to after huge election losses in 1994 when he was president, talk of relevancy indicates a problem.
In recent years, changes in campaign finance laws coupled with technological advances have made it relatively easy for deep-pocketed donors to circumvent the national party organizations to have more of a say in national elections by setting up independent groups.
That’s what big-name establishment Republicans such as Karl Rove and Ed Gillespie did over the past two years as concerns about Steele’s management mushroomed amid reports of spending improprieties, anemic fundraising and verbal missteps.
Now, the new chairman is looking to reassert the party’s control over national elections, woo back donors who fled the RNC and restore the GOP umbrella organization’s tarnished image.
“We’re going to bring real leadership back,“ said Priebus, Wisconsin’s state chairman. “We have a lot of work to do.“
Despite all the woes at the RNC under Steele, Republicans made enormous gains in last November’s elections, winning control of the House.
So does it really matter who becomes chairman of a national party?
Yes, the 168-member RNC certainly thought.
Five people, including Priebus and Steele, competed over the past few months for the job.
The favorite heading into Friday’s balloting, Priebus led the field through seven rounds of voting.
Steele quit after the fourth when it became clear he could not win a second two-year term.
Ann Wagner, a former Missouri state GOP head, abandoned her bid a few rounds later. Maria Cino, a New York native who served in President George W. Bush’s administration, and Saul Anuzis, a former chairman of the Michigan Republican Party, stayed on the ballot until the end.
Party leaders who worked for Steele’s ouster quickly rallied behind the new leader, as did prospective 2012 presidential candidates.
So too American Crossroads, an outside group that spent millions in the 2010 elections to, in effect, fill in for the beleaguered RNC.
“Over the next two years, no single institution is more crucial in the American center-right movement than a strategically smart and fiscally sound Republican National Committee,“ said Steven Law, the head of American Crossroads. “While many functions in the political sphere can be managed by independent organizations, the Republican Party remains the backbone of the center-right movement.“
Still, he indicated that the group would play “an even more robust” role in the next elections.
In the run-up to the presidential election year, Priebus will serve as the party top spokesman promoting its agenda, countering Democrats, raising money to help Republicans and improving a get-out-the-vote effort that critics say languished under Steele.
“We have to get on track. And together we can defeat Barack Obama in 2012,“ Priebus said in a brief victory speech, pleading for unity within the fractured committee. “We all recognize that there’s a steep hill here ahead of us, and the only way that we’ll be able to move forward is if we’re all together.“
Priebus must retire the huge debt owed to vendors and banks, as well as lure back demoralized donors who have been so frustrated with Steele’s management that they sent their dollars elsewhere or didn’t open their wallets at all last year. The party had only about $1 million cash on hand at year’s end.
Priebus also will have to figure out how to navigate a GOP civil war in which conservatives and tea party disciples are trying to pull the Republican Party further to the right to the chagrin of moderates and some longtime establishment leaders.
And he’ll have to plan the 2012 GOP convention while helping the GOP navigate the congressional and legislative redistricting process under way following the 2010 census.