Six Candidates Lobby To Be RNC Chairman
RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
The Republicans took a beating at the polls this fall, and that's why when the party gathers at the end of the month, there's a lot riding on who it chooses as party leader. This year, Republicans have a more diverse field to choose from. Here to tell us about it is NPR News analyst Juan Williams. Good morning.
JUAN WILLIAMS: Good morning, Renee.
MONTAGNE: And before we look at the candidates by name, remind us what the party chairman does, and how important what he does is.
WILLIAMS: That's a good question, because people outside of this Washington universe often look at the party chairman with a great deal of puzzlement. But it basically boils down to fundraising and speaking, even candidate development nationwide. They make sure the computers are in place to - so the party can collect all those funds, and they also do a great deal when it comes to things like voter registration lists. All the things that are sort of the basics of a party operations.
Remember that Democrat Howard Dean had his 50-state strategy. Republicans right now are looking for someone to fill that slot who could be a strong voice of opposition to the Democrats, at a time when Democrats control the House, Senate and White House. And the Democrats for themselves just appointed Tim Kaine, the governor of Virginia. So this all comes at a time when, in the last cycle, Republicans lost 21 House seats, 7 Senate seats. So the RNC chairman becomes a key player in Washington.
MONTAGNE: And two of the six people running to head the RNC, the Republican National Committee, are African-American. Is this a sign that blacks are moving up into leadership posts in the party?
WILLIAMS: Right. Well, you have two African-Americans, Renee. Ken Blackwell, former secretary of state of Ohio, Michael Steele, the former lieutenant governor of Maryland. No, in this race, two of the six, as you said, this would be a first for the RNC. The Democrats had their first black chairman back in the late '80s - 1989, Ron Brown. But Republicans have lost ground with African-Americans under President Bush, especially so in the last election cycle with Barack Obama at the head of the ticket - the Democratic ticket. So the party is looking to expand its base, especially so with black and Hispanic voters, and trying to do something in terms of growing those numbers and avoid being isolated as a party of white Southern men, for the most part.
MONTAGNE: Now, there have been controversies, though, in the midst of this involving racial overtones to do with two of the other candidates. Tell us about that.
WILLIAMS: Well, Chip Saltsman, who's party chair in Tennessee, distributed a CD as a Christmas holiday card type of thing that included a song mocking Barack Obama. It was a song that aired originally on a radio show, and it was called "Barack The Magic Negro." That caught...
MONTAGNE: A parody - a parody song.
WILLIAMS: Absolutely. Yeah, so lots of people were a little bit uncomfortable about that. And then Katon Dawson, who's the chair of the South Carolina Republican Party, is a former member of an all-white country club in Columbia, South Carolina. He's resigned. But both of these issues have come up during the campaign for RNC chair.
MONTAGNE: And just in the few seconds we have left, the other two names are?
WILLIAMS: Saul Anuzis, who's the current chairman at the Michigan Republican Party, and Mike Duncan, who - of course, who is the current chairman of the RNC, and who has been under much criticism for his time. President Bush had appointed him back in 2006.
MONTAGNE: Well, finally, whoever wins, won't Senator Mitch McConnell remain the face of Republican power in Washington? He's the minority leader.
WILLIAMS: Absolutely, in the Senate. And when it comes down to tough decisions, it's going to be also John Boehner in the House, but Mitch McConnell in the Senate. They're the most powerful elected officials on the Republican side in Washington right now. And to a certain extent, they're not always great spokesmen. Boehner better, more so than McConnell.
MONTAGNE: Thanks for joining us. NPR analyst Juan Williams. This is NPR News.