Shelley Mays/The Tennessean/AP
Former Tennessee GOP Chairman Chip Saltsman (left) announces his bid for chairmanship of the Republican National Party with Tennessee Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey by his side Dec. 8 in Nashville, Tenn.
Shelley Mays/The Tennessean/AP
Former Tennessee GOP Chairman Chip Saltsman announces his bid for chairmanship of the Republican National Party with former U.S. Sen. Bill Frist (left) and Tennessee Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey by his side Dec. 8 in Nashville, Tenn.
Shelley Mays/The Tennessean/AP
In the search for someone to lead the Republican Party out of its political wilderness, the winnowing has begun.
Former Tennessee GOP Chairman Chip Saltsman appears on the brink of elimination from the competitive race for the national party chairmanship after sending GOP committee members a Christmas CD that contained the parody song "Barack the Magic Negro."
Saltsman most recently ran Mike Huckabee's presidential campaign.
"It was inappropriate," North Dakota GOP Chairman Gary Emineth says of the Saltsman gift. "It has really hurt his chances." Though Saltsman still has his supporters, including Huckabee, many party members have been much more blunt than Emineth.
Among them are Florida Republican Chairman Jim Greer, who called the song racially insulting and commended party leaders for opposition to "this type of behavior," and GOP strategist John Feehery, who characterized it as "a tremendous blunder that knocks Saltsman out."
'A Split In The Republican Party'
The song, performed by an Al Sharpton impersonator, was written by satirist and Saltsman friend Paul Shanklin to the tune of "Puff the Magic Dragon." It played off a Los Angeles Times opinion piece by freelance writer David Ehrenstein, who characterized Obama as an archetypal cinematic "Magic Negro" — a black man who assuages white guilt, like the character played by Sidney Poitier in Guess Who's Coming to Dinner.
The Shanklin parody got airtime on conservative talker Rush Limbaugh's radio show in 2007 and is now featured on Limbaugh's Web site.
Ehrenstein, an African-American and a gay rights activist, says the emergence of his essay into the GOP debate "represents a split in the Republican Party about what to do about Barack Obama."
Saltsman's stumble comes at a time when the Republican Party is struggling to define the role of loyal opposition to the nation's first African-American president. The party is uncomfortable with the minuscule share of the black vote it received in 2008, as well as the lack of African-Americans among GOP officeholders. No black members of Congress are Republican, and only a few black Republicans are in statewide office or on the Republican National Committee itself. Black membership in the Democratic National Committee is just over 21 percent, according to the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies.
An Opening For Other Candidates
The Christmas CD controversy gave Saltsman's opponents an opportunity. Current RNC Chairman Mike Duncan, who is fighting to keep the post after a disastrous election year, said he was "shocked and appalled" by Saltsman's gift. Michigan GOP Chairman Saul Anuzis, who also wants the top spot, found it in "bad taste."
Another candidate, former Ohio Secretary of State Ken Blackwell, was more circumspect, citing "hypersensitivity in the press regarding matters of race." Blackwell is one of two black candidates challenging Duncan, along with former Lt. Gov. Michael Steele of Maryland. Steele characterized Saltsman's gesture as a misplaced attempt at humor.
The other candidate for the RNC chairmanship, South Carolina GOP Chairman Katon Dawson, who recently resigned from a private club after he said he discovered that it has a whites-only policy, has not commented.
'Bruised Feelings And Fingers Pointing' After Election Loss
The Saltsman imbroglio is only the latest example of turmoil surrounding the party's effort to pick a new leader.
"We lost an election, and there are now bruised feelings and fingers pointing in every direction," says Texas-based Republican pollster David Hill, who supports Anuzis in the chairmanship race.
"It's not just Bushies versus not Bushies, or old-line movement conservatives versus moderates, or D.C. insiders versus Main Street Americans," says Hill, who writes a weekly column for The Hill, a Washington-based congressional newspaper. "We've got multiple splits."
So distrustful were some national committee members about next month's RNC election process that a couple of dozen members, led by Emineth of North Dakota, petitioned to hold their own open RNC meeting with the candidates in advance of the full committee vote at the end of the month. The step is believed to be unprecedented.
The Jan. 7 meeting of this group would follow by one day an invitation-only gathering of members of the RNC's conservative steering committee, at which candidates are expected to be asked to defend their conservative bona fides. A much-anticipated public candidates debate, sponsored by Grover Norquist's Americans for Tax Reform organization, is scheduled for Jan. 5 at the National Press Club. All six announced candidates are expected to participate.
The closed conservative steering committee meeting "rubbed me the wrong way," says Emineth, a steering committee member. "They were pushing to have a straw poll of invited members — when over half the membership was not invited. My concern was about agendas that might be at play, and that any poll would appear like an inside job."
"There needs to be a level playing field. It's the most important decision this party will make in several years," Emineth says, "and I wanted to push it back to the membership."
Under party rules, a national committee meeting can be called by members if members from 16 states sign on. Emineth says he corralled 19 members from 23 states.
Setting The Course For Years To Come
So where does this leave the candidates — and the direction of the party?
Duncan enjoys incumbency, but a number of members say they find his less-than-dynamic media persona troubling. Electing Steele or Blackwell as the RNC's first black chairman would have value for the moment, Hill says, but is no substitute for genuine outreach to younger voters and to those of different racial and ethnic backgrounds.
It's all up in the air, with or without Saltsman, and party officials are predicting that it will take more than one ballot to choose a leader.
"Trying to talk to Washington insiders and figure out what the strategy is and who's likely to be chairman is like trying to talk to your local parish priest about who is going to be the next pope," Hill says. "We'll just have to wait and watch the smoke signals."
Norquist says the RNC's choice will set the course for Republicans in years to come. "This decision is the closest thing you get to choosing a president," he says. "This person will be the party's spokesman, manage the party's budget, decide what staff and consultants get hired, what technology a million dollars will go into and won't go into."
His organization's debate will give candidates a public forum to tell party members where they believe the GOP should go, Norquist says, and which issues it should emphasize. "This is the beginning of the conversation about what the modern Republican Party does after the losses of 2006 and 2009," he says.