Wednesday, January 7, 2009

RNC chair race: 'Everyone is ... pissed'

As Republicans struggle to determine the future of their party after a tough election, intraparty tensions have flared over three forums next week that may prove crucial to determining the winner of the six-way race for the chair of the Republican National Committee — a post that will hold considerable sway over the direction of the GOP.

“Some people are pissed off at [Americans for Tax Reform President] Grover [Norquist]. Some people are pissed off at the Conservative Steering Committee. Some people are pissed off at [current RNC chair] Mike Duncan. Some people are pissed off at social conservatives. The social conservatives are pissed at leaders in Congress,” said a Republican consultant who has worked with the RNC. “Everyone is basically pissed.”

The busy upcoming week begins with a debate hosted by the conservative group Americans for Tax Reform on Monday, a set of meetings hosted Tuesday by a group of RNC members calling themselves the Conservative Steering Committee, and finally a special meeting of the full RNC on Wednesday.

Just three weeks later, the 168 RNC members will meet again in Washington to elect their next chairman — an officer tasked with enormous fundraising and managerial responsibilities, and with the potential to be an important carrier of the Republican message.

“I think that what’s said, the responses to the candidates at all of these forums, are going to be distributed out to all the members,” said Oklahoma Republican Party Chairman Gary Jones, who supports former Ohio Secretary of State Ken Blackwell’s bid for the chairmanship.

When a party controls the White House, the president effectively decides his own party chairman, making this year’s RNC race the first open Republican race since the 1990s. Sitting chairman Mike Duncan, who’s taken heat in some quarters for the party’s poor showing the year, is squaring off against five challengers, including Blackwell, former Maryland Lt. Gov. Michael Steele, former Tennessee GOP Chairman Chip Saltsman, and the current chairmen of the Michigan and South Carolina Republican parties, Saul Anuzis and Katon Dawson.

The Conservative Steering Committee’s Tuesday session — which, along with a straw poll to be held there, will be open to only some members of the RNC — has rankled some excluded members and has helped prompt the call for an unprecedented special open meeting of the party committee Wednesday.

“There’s no doubt in my mind the full meeting on Wednesday is a direct consequence of the nature and the way the Tuesday thing was handled,” said one RNC member who has not endorsed a candidate in the chairman’s race.

“I think almost nobody knows anything about what they’re going to vote on,” said a Republican strategist connected to one of the campaigns. “I think they threw this thing together and they’re making it up on the fly.”

The strategist wondered if voting procedures were even in place: “Is it all just coming in to Bopp’s e-mail address?”

RNC Vice Chairman James Bopp Jr., who leads the Conservative Steering Committee, said questions about Tuesday’s voting procedures were “ignorant.”

“Exclusivity, if that is the complaint, is simply an attack on the right of free people to meet and associate with each other. Trying to use the RNC as a club to try and stop people from meeting together is like looking for a government bailout,” said Bopp, who added that the conservative group had grown to some 90 members. “We’ve sought out and invited every conservative member who agrees, you know, with our goals.”

Bopp said votes would be cast according to guidelines laid out in a Dec. 12, 2008, conference call and that members of the group who could not be present would be casting ballots by e-mail.

But with some RNC members calling the legitimacy of Tuesday’s meeting into question, the committee’s Wednesday session has become all the more important, according to the same member — and there’s a hint of anti-incumbent sentiment about the whole affair.

Wednesday’s full-committee session is the never-before-employed rule that lets a meeting be called if it’s requested by members from at least 16 different states. The candidate forum is the sole item on the agenda.

“The Wednesday thing is a much bigger deal, in my judgment, than the Tuesday thing, because the Wednesday thing is a full meeting of the committee, forced by the members, when the chairman could have called it himself,” the member said. “Any time that you have a challenger who is seen on equal footing with the incumbent, it hurts the incumbent.”

And the Monday debate, where Americans for Tax Reform President Grover Norquist will present candidates with questions gathered online, in a forum that will stream over the Web, gives candidates the chance to define themselves in front of a wider audience — though Republicans caution that it’s ultimately the members of the RNC who matter in the race.

A state party chairman who is backing one of Duncan’s opponents agreed that this week could be a unique chance for challengers to upstage the current chairman, whose personal relationships with many RNC members have made him the default choice, even for some voters uneasy about his performance on the job.

“I think Duncan has the most to lose,” the chairman said. “I think people are looking for verification that he should not be reelected, and if they see it next week it’s going to hurt Duncan quite a bit.”

Gary Emineth, the North Dakota Republican Party chairman who led the push for a full-membership meeting of the RNC, said the point of the Wednesday meeting wasn’t to favor any particular candidate,but to provide an open session where members could grill the candidates in greater detail.

“I was looking for an open forum for members to ask questions, expecting only 30 to 50 members,” he said, suggesting members could ask more specific questions about issues such as technology, grass-roots organizing and policy development in this setting.

Some observers of the race say the candidates have put forward similar plans for revamping the party’s infrastructure, and questions about leadership style and experience could end up being decisive this week.

Steele, whose much-touted communications skills haven’t been on full display in what’s been a mostly below-the-radar campaign, may shine in the spotlight of debates and forums.

“I think Michael has got a very charismatic personality and he’s got a pretty good plan. He’s been out of the fire here over the last week, and he has a real opportunity ... to give people a firsthand look at his skills as a communicator and lay out the core elements of his plan,” said the first anonymous Republican consultant.

Others suggest the two candidates now serving as party chairs could benefit from in-depth conversations about tactics and organizing.

“It’s going to be easier to get more specific with a Katon Dawson or a Saul Anuzis,” Emineth said. “They’re very attuned to running state parties.”

Dawson agreed that the week’s events would be an important chance for candidates to showcase the details of their plans, saying he hoped candidates would be “talking about redistricting, talking about a 45-day program for early voting.”

“Being the spokesman for the party has come up in numerous conversations,” Dawson said. “That’s only about 20 percent of this job. This job is a big job, of taking a look inside the belly of the beast of a political party.”

No single front-runner has yet emerged in the race, though Blackwell and Anuzis have been most successful at rolling out public endorsements, with Dawson gaining ground, and Duncan is said to hold significant support among veteran members of the committee."

While the preparations for the week’s forums seem chaotic, there’s at least one conservative who’s not complaining.

“I do believe that if this goes at all well ... this will be the minimum opening bid for all such races in the future,” said Norquist, who will preside over Monday’s debate, “that there will be at least one public debate with all the candidates for the RNC — two years from now, four years from now and 20 years from now.”

Franken declares Senate race win after state ruling

Democrat Al Franken declared victory in the hotly contested Minnesota Senate race Monday, saying the win is "incredibly humbling."

The Minnesota State Canvassing Board on Monday certified the results of the recount of Republican Sen. Norm Coleman's fight to retain his seat against Franken. The results showed Franken with a 225-vote lead.

"I am proud to stand before you as the next senator from Minnesota," Franken told reporters Monday night. "It's clear that we have a lot of important work to do ... I'm ready to go to Washington and get to work as soon as possible."

Coleman's attorney, Tony Trimble, said shortly after the ruling that the campaign will officially file a lawsuit. The Minnesota Republican's campaign later announced that he will make a public statement on Tuesday afternoon.

Coleman's campaign contends the recount should have included about 650 absentee ballots it says were improperly rejected in the initial count.Video Watch Coleman say he will take his fight to the courts »

The initial count from the November 4 election put Coleman, a first-term senator, 215 votes ahead of Franken, who is known for his stint on NBC's "Saturday Night Live" and as a former talk-show host on progressive radio network Air America.

In Washington, the Senate's majority and minority leaders staked out opposing positions on the matter of who will serve Minnesota alongside Democrat Amy Klobuchar.

"There comes a time when you have to acknowledge that the race is over," Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nevada, told reporters. "The race in Minnesota's over. Now it's only a little finger-pointing. The certification by the canvassing board, which has been in process for a number of weeks, now clearly shows that Al Franken has won."

Reid added later: "Coleman will never ever serve in the Senate. He's lost the election. He can stall things, but he'll never serve in the Senate." Video Watch Reid call on Coleman to concede the race »

Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, said: "The law in Minnesota requires certification from the secretary of state and that can't happen until the conclusion of all legal battles. It's not over."

Republican National Committee Chairman Mike Duncan echoed McConnell's criticism.

"The efforts of Al Franken, Harry Reid and Chuck Schumer to steal this election and seat Al Franken despite not having an election certificate are unprecedented," Duncan said in a statement. "I am confident that if the law is followed, Norm Coleman will be taking his rightful seat in the U.S. Senate."

Republican Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, the chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, has pledged a GOP filibuster if the Democratic-controlled Senate attempts to seat Franken before all legal battles play out and before Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, a Republican, can co-sign Minnesota Secretary of State Mark Ritchie's certificate.

Reid said there would be no effort to seat Franken on Tuesday, the day new senators will be sworn in.

Meanwhile, in a move that leaves a post-election legal challenge the last hope for Coleman, Minnesota's high court earlier Monday denied his campaign's request to consider about 650 additional rejected absentee ballots.

His attorneys had said those ballots should have been included in the count of mistakenly rejected ballots that were tallied over the weekend.

The Coleman campaign also said Monday that there was no uniform standard for local officials and campaigns to review and tabulate these improperly rejected ballots.

Previously, the court had ordered that only ballots that local officials and both campaigns could agree were rejected in error could be counted. A consensus was met on about 950 of 1,350 originally found by local officials.

The court ruling suggested Coleman's latest request should be a post-election consideration. The Coleman campaign, meanwhile, said it was determined to take the question to court.

"Today's ruling, which effectively disregards the votes of hundreds of Minnesotans, ensures that an election contest is now inevitable," said Coleman attorney Fritz Knaak.

"The Coleman campaign has consistently and continually fought to have every validly cast vote counted, and for the integrity of Minnesota's election system, we will not stop now. The Minnesota Supreme Court has made sure that an election contest will need to be filed quickly in order to ensure that an accurate and valid recount can be achieved."

Coleman, who just finished his first term as senator, led Franken by 206 votes at the end of the original vote count in November. The margin automatically triggered the recount, which was hampered by multiple challenges from both sides.

Coleman switched to the Republican Party from the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party, which Franken now represents, in 1996, after two years as St. Paul's mayor.