Earlier this afternoon, I attended the RNC chairmanship debate sponsored by Americans for Tax Reform. As I noted in an earlier post, it’s difficult to determine from this sort of event who would make a good RNC chair given that so much of that role happens behind the scenes. During the debate — which was more like a forum since there wasn’t much arguing going on — there was broad agreement that the party needed to stick to Republican principles, make better use of technology, help Republicans become competitive in all fifty states, and do a better job of reaching out to young and minority voters.
Ken Blackwell used examples of his record of as an activist and politician and showed flashes of humor to make the case that Republicans needed to reinvigorate the base by returning to conservative principles on small government and individual liberty; RNC chairman Mike Duncan emphasized that in a tough year for Republicans, under his leadership the RNC still did a good job raising a lot of money and recruiting volunteers; Michael Steele tried to deliver an optimistic message, dismissing as “bunk” the idea that the Republican Party is at “death’s door” and he discussed providing adequate resources at the state and local level; Saul Anuzis cited his experience in the blue state of Michigan as an asset in expanding the map; Chip Saltsman boasted that his leadership as state party chairman helped defeat Al Gore in his home state of Tennessee in 2000, which made the difference in electing Bush; Katon Dawson described how he turned around a South Carolina Republican Party that was in disarray when he took over in 2002.
Moderator Grover Norquist asked the candidates who was their favorite Republican president (you can guess who each of them named), and then Norquist followed up by asking who was their least favorite president. Four candidates declined to take the bait, while Duncan named Warren Harding, and Blackwell named Hoover, for setting the stage for massive government intervention before the New Deal, just as President Bush set the stage for Barack Obama to pursue big government economic policies.
While, as I said, there wasn’t much of an actual “debate,” to the extent that there was some back and fourth, it seemed to be between Blackwell and Dawson — which may or may not be an indicator of anything. In his opening remarks, Blackwell noted that he’s won more elections than anybody else on the stage except perhaps Dawson, joking, “we all know how difficult it is to win races in the swing state of South Carolina.” Dawson later responded that there was difficulty in winning those elections, and told me after that Blackwell benefitted from the Republican Party infrastructure when elected to public office, but Dawson was the one who was getting other people elected, which is more in tune with the role of the RNC chair.
Dawson has been hurt by his longtime membership in an all-white country club, an issue which he not-too subtly tried to address in his opening remarks, when he asked Ron Thomas — a black Army veteran who he hired as his political director when he took over the SC GOP — to stand up to be seen by the hundreds of people in attendance. When I asked Dawson about the controversy after the event, he said it was a “political ploy” and that it had been answered by his recruitment of and hiring of qualified minorities, as demonstrated by Thomas.
One thing to keep in mind is that, as Dawson told me, the audience isn’t Americans for Tax Reform or anybody else, but the RNC members who will actually be voting for the new chairman. So that’s why it’s hard to say who “won” the debate in the traditional sense.