The presidential election may be over, but there's one campaign still raging: the contest for the Chairmanship of the Republican National Committee. It's a weird kind of election, because the RNC Chairman is an important leader who sets policy for the entire party, but the selection process is arcane, and in the hands of the relatively small group of party insiders who make up the Republican National Committee. This year's race is different from past contests for the Chairmanship because interest is higher than ever and some groups have made an effort to involve the public in ways which have never been attempted before: getting grassroots party activists interested in the race, even though they have no real role in picking the Chairman.
The RNC's outreach to the grassroots has been reluctant. Their interests aren't exactly with taking a largely internal process and making it public. Yet many of the candidates have been reaching out to the lower levels of the party with websites and groups on Facebook and Myspace and even telemarketing campaigns. Advocacy groups are also getting involved; groups like Americans for Tax Reform, which sponsored an unprecedented debate with all of the candidates in attendance and a full broadcast on CSPAN.
The most aggressive candidate in pursuing grassroots support and outside endorsements is former Ohio Secretary of State Ken Blackwell. He has a very active Facebook group, does direct email and has even subjected me — presumably along with everyone else on a list of state convention delegates — to a robocall about the future of the party. Not far behind are Michgan GOP Chairman Saul Anuzis and former Maryland Lieutenant Governor Michael Steele, who are making a lot of use of the internet by personally reaching out to activists around the nation. Mike Duncan, the incumbent Chairman, is one of the candidates doing the least to promote himself outside of the party's inner circles.
The whole concept of running a campaign for this office is a little strange. The only actual voters are the two committee members and one part chairman from each state; a total of only 168 people when you include representatives for miscellaneous territories. That's a very small group of people who are mostly blue-haired old ladies who see their roles as primarily defending the status-quo. There are very few young radicals, idealistic insurgents or grassroots activists in the group. That may change in the future, but right now it's still mostly the old guard.
You would think that the sensible way to campaign would be to try to make personal contact with the committee members and convince them that you're just as big a career hack as they are and that you want nothing more than to represent the establishment. Yet the leading candidates are making their pitch to the grassroots, presumably in the belief that they can inspire them to make calls and send letters and get the attention of their committee members — most of whom they don't even know exist. What's more, most of them are campaigning as reformers who want to restore the integrity of the party and erase the negative legacy of recent policy failures. That message isn't going to sell well with investors who are heavily invested in those failed policies.
The candidates are even going so far as to make their pitch to Ron Paul's radical supporters, as most of them did when asked about the Paul campaign in the debate.
Even those who had been hostile to Paul and his followers during the presidential election are now talking about inclusiveness and praising Paul for bringing new blood into the party. Some of them even seem willing to consider a much more libertarian shift in party philosophy, which has to scare the granny panties off RNC committee members.
Maybe this strategy can work. Maybe the grassroots can get its voice heard, but my guess is that real change in the party structure is a few years away, when today's young activists have moved up in the power hierarchy and become RNC members themselves. In the short-term, this appeal to the grassroots runs a risk of backfiring badly. If one of these candidates like Michael Steele gains a significant lead in popular support and effectively becomes the choice of the hoi-poloi of the party, what will their reaction be when the stodgy insiders of the RNC pick one of the less appealing but more traditional candidates, with zero regard for what the party rank and file actually want. It could be the straw that breaks the camel's back; a final and terminal reminder that the party doesn't really care about them at all.
By taking their campaign to the grassroots, candidates like Blackwell, Steele and Anuzis are winning a lot of support within the party, but maybe not with the right people. They're setting themselves up for a fall, and if they fall, they're going to take the hopes of a lot of supporters with them, and may even precipitate a crisis which might bring the party structure crashing down. Maybe it's time for a crisis. Maybe we're past due for an overthrow of the party establishment.