Steele's Job Puts RNC Leadership In Question

On Monday, candidates vying to chair the Republican National Committee will hold a debate. Incumbent Michael Steele led the GOP to big gains, yet he's still fighting for his job. We wondered, in the age of Internet fund raising and YouTube campaign ads, just what is the job description for party chairs? Guest host Jennifer Ludden talks with Miami Herald columnist Joy-Ann Reid about the upcoming RNC election.

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JENNIFER LUDDEN, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Jennifer Ludden.

On Monday, candidates vying to chair the Republican National Committee will hold a debate. Incumbent Michael Steele led the GOP to big gains in Congress and at the state level in November, yet he's still fighting for his job.

We wondered: In the age of Internet fundraising and YouTube campaign ads, what is the job description for party chairs?

Joining us now is Joy-Ann Reid. She's a Miami Herald columnist and editor of the blog ReidReport.com, and she's in the studios of WLRN. Welcome to the show, Joy.

Ms. JOY-ANN REID (Columnist, Miami Herald): Hi, Jennifer. Great to be here.

LUDDEN: So remind us. Now, by all past measures, having your party do better than the other party means you get to keep your job, is that right? But not so in chairman Michael Steele's case?

Ms. REID: Yeah. I think partly, it's personality. I think if you look at the sort of nuts and bolts of what Michael Steele accomplished - getting in early into the Massachusetts Senate race where, of course, that seat was taken, the Ted Kennedy seat was won by Republican Scott Brown - and some of the sort of tactical maneuvers that he made, they seemed smart. But Michael Steele made himself such a character, and sort of a caricature from the minute he got into that office, that his personality kind of overwhelmed his job performance. And I think because of that, and also because of some of the fundraising scandals, and just sort of things that embarrassed the party, he's seen as kind of too hot to handle.

And he's not the kind of chairman who stays in the background and does his job. He wanted to be out front. He wanted to be on TV. And unfortunately, he was - and not in a good way.

LUDDEN: Now, he still wants the job, though, but he's got five challengers. Who are the more viable candidates?

Ms. REID: Well, right now, what's really interesting - Michael Steele, part of the reason that he won was we just had the election of the first African-American president, right? So the thinking was, it would be great for the Republican Party to show that it, too, is diverse.

So you had two black candidates. Michael Steele was seen as the one who was kind of more friendly to moderates, kind of more marketable, more saleable, so he won in a squeaker. But once he got in, he really wasn't that effective at countering President Obama. And now that the party is looking for someone new, they're looking for someone more doctrinaire - somebody who is unambiguously pro-life, which Michael Steele kind of wavered on; somebody who is more conservative. And so now, ironically, we could go from the first black chairman to a guy from Wisconsin named Reince Priebus. And Priebus is the chairman of the Wisconsin Republican Party. They did very well, the Republicans did, in that state. So he's seen as kind of a star at the state level.

But you also have other people like Saul Anuzis, who's the Michigan party chair. You have two women in the race - Ann Wagner, who is a former co-chair at the national level; and a woman named Maria Cino, who was a Bush administration official.

And then you've also got Gentry Collins, who actually worked for Michael Steele. He was his political director. He's seen as kind of an outlier candidate. He doesn't have a lot of support, in part because he worked for Michael Steele.

LUDDEN: So the role maybe has become more high-profile. But you've also got, you know, we've got the Internet, social media playing a bigger role in fundraising and rallying public support. Has the nature of the job of party chair changed in these times?

Ms. REID: I think it really has. If you look at just the DNC and the RNC, the Republican and Democratic committees, the Democratic committee outraised Michael Steele's committee by about $38 million. They also outspent the RNC, and yet the RNC was more successful politically, if you look at just the outcome of the elections.

So you really have to wonder whether or not being able to out-fundraise, being able to sort of do better on that level helped the Democrats much. At the same time, committees outside of the Republican National Committee structure by far outraised the RNC. You had Karl Rove's American Crossroads, and other groups that took advantage of the Citizen's United Supreme Court ruling that allows corporations to pour more money in.

You had the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. You just had a lot more outside groups raising a lot more money - and actually, in a way, being a lot more powerful and a lot more influential in the outcome of the elections.

So you really start to wonder - even if you look at Barack Obama's presidential run, where raising money on the Internet from small donors actually netted him huge amounts of money - do you really need these committees for fundraising when both are now in the red?

The next RNC chair is going to start with only about $1.9 million in the bank. Are they as important when you can raise money so many other ways? I'm not sure.

LUDDEN: Well, what is each party doing right, and what do you think they need to do better?

Ms. REID: What these party chairs really - probably should concentrate more on, rather than being on television, for instance, or making comments on cable news, is getting their state parties ready for the next election. Especially from the Democrats' point of view, since they did so poorly in this last election. They really had better start getting in gear because a lot of the problems that the Democrats faced were at the state party level, particularly in places like Florida, where they don't have strong parties.

So if the DNC and the RNC can just focus on organizing their state parties, both parties will be better off.

LUDDEN: Joy-Ann Reid, editor of the Reid Report and columnist for the Miami Herald, and she joined us from the studios of WLRN. Thank you very much.

Ms. REID: Thank you.

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