December, 8th 2010

RNC Chairman's race news: Schlafly, Phillips and Barbour, OH MY!

– Liz Mair

If you read Politico's Morning Score (and I do), you will have noticed this morning that there is * big news * in the RNC Chairman's race.

Saul Anuzis got the endorsement of the founder of the Tea Party Nation.

Ann Wagner has garnered the endorsement of Phyllis Schlafly.

Reince Priebus seems to be being talked up and defended big-time by Henry Barbour.

Let's be clear about this: While these are fun stories to write about, two of these bits of news will have little to no positive impact on the contender-in-question's chances of winning the job of RNC Chairman.  One of them, and potentially two, could actually have a negative impact on the contender-in-question's chances of coming out on top.

Let's start with Anuzis' news.  First off, it bears mentioning that Judson Phillips (the Tea Party Nation founder in question) is not a member of the RNC, so while his views will no doubt be of interest to people who like the Tea Party Nation and what they stand for, he doesn't actually get a vote.  Moreover, I seriously doubt that any of the 168 people who do get a vote will say "ah, I'm going to vote for Saul because Judson Phillips said so."  Those are primary reasons why I doubt this endorsement will do little to nothing for Anuzis, other than get the media to write about his campaign (an apparently successful gambit, since I'm writing about said endorsement right now).

But hypothetically, this endorsement could actually have a negative effect for Anuzis, and here's why.  When he announced his bid for Chairman, Anuzis went out of his way-- in the course of a quasi-media blitz, no less-- to make the point that as Chairman, he would stay out of the spotlight unlike certain other Chairmen (ahem-- Michael Steele-- ahem).  I just wonder... will any of the 168 doubt that claim, given that Judson Phillips is a guy who has attracted quite a lot of media attention recently for, say, his remarks indicating that only property owners should get a vote, and given that Anuzis is now quite happily publicly and explicitly tying himself to Phillips, i.e., the guy who is something of a story himself?  Maybe.  I tend to think that few among the 168 really care what Judson Phillips thinks, or who he has endorsed.  But putting oneself in the media spotlight by actively linking oneself to a controversial figure strikes me as the kind of thing that could undermine the credibility of claims that one will stay out of the media spotlight as Chairman...promise!

Now, on to Wagner.  Having established that Judson Phillips doesn't get a vote when it comes to selecting an RNC Chairman for the next two years, we can safely also establish that Phyllis Schlafly doesn't get a vote, either-- though with a lot of RNC members being older, conservative establishment (or movement-- pick your terminology) types, it does bear mentioning that her endorsement could be of some more interest to them than Phillips'.  RNC members actually care about Schlafly and conservative activists like her; I'm not sure a lot of them care to an equivalent degree about the Tea Party who many of them think a useful, but essentially rowdy anarchical group of loony hooligans-- though they know that giving credit to the Tea Party and engaging in Tea Party ego-stroking is of course helpful when it comes to making Tea Partiers feel loved, and is basically an integral part of all Republican talking points, which the media expect to hear rigorously adhered to, these days.

But back to the point, I'm not sure RNC members care about Schlafly or her views that much in this context-- as I wrote in my CNN op-ed last week, the main qualifications the 168 are looking for in a Chairman are fundraising chops, management skills, neutrality, duct tape and committee membership (or de facto membership). You may have noticed that "rock-ribbed conservatism" doesn't feature on that list, and there's a reason why: The other qualities matter a lot more.  If conservatism were the, or one of two, primary consideration(s) for committee members, I'm reasonably certain Ken Blackwell would have done better in the last race, back in 2009-- you can't really get much more conservative than Ken Blackwell, though Wagner seems determined to try.  There's been a lot of chatter about her statement during last week's forum that when it came to her priorities "It's money first, it's money second, and it's money third."  But in watching the debate, I felt like she took every conceivable opportunity to re-emphasize just how conservative she is.  And now she's doing it again, with the Schlafly endorsement.  So we now all know that Wagner is really, really freaking conservative.  What we don't know-- or I don't, anyway-- is what her plan is for raising something like $400-$500 million in the next cycle.  And a main reason this endorsement isn't going to do much if anything for her is that it doesn't help clarify that beyond what people already know-- and that, her fundraising plans and ability to execute them, actually do matter.  A lot.

Finally, we have the Priebus news that Henry Barbour has been defending him and bigging him up to fellow committeemembers.  That's nice-- anyone with the last name Barbour automatically garners respect from RNC members so Barbour compliments are highly-prized things, especially when they seem aimed at helping convince people that actually, you weren't part of the ancien regime that struggled to get the basic work of the RNC done without looking like they were secretly engaging in a slapstick comedy act (or when the objective is to ensure people understand you were the chief advocate for turning the slapstick comedy act into a Shakespeare-performing troupe of well-rated actors).  

However, the reality is that speculation still abounds in Republican circles as to whether Haley Barbour might conceivably run for President in 2012-- and it's unlikely that committeemembers would elect anyone to the job of Chairman who is seen to be favorable to one (prospective) presidential camp or another.  

Does Henry Barbour talking up Priebus make Priebus look like the Barbour-preferred choice?  I think it might, to some members.  And as useful as it is to have Henry Barbour emphasizing that Priebus was one of the only people willing to talk straight to Michael Steele (and therefore one who should get credit for trying to resolve problems at the RNC, rather than enable them to spiral out of control), I think this could present a potential liability for Priebus, too, particularly if it continues and he starts to look like someone who owes Henry Barbour, and potentially his uncle, a lot. [intro]



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