Wes Vernon
The Republican road to recovery: A real pro's ideas
By Wes Vernon
December 4, 2008

The nine (at last count) candidates for the job of Republican National Chairman have been sent an eight-page questionnaire by one of the RNC's members — essentially attempting to determine what they would do to pick up the pieces following the 2008 disaster.

This letter is bound to get much attention because it comes from a party activist whose prominence in the GOP and in the conservative movement has earned him the respect of those skilled in the craft of serious political science.

A longtime pro

Morton Blackwell has been National Committeeman from Virginia for twenty years. He is best known to conservatives nationwide for his tireless work with young people at his Leadership Institute, where he trains up and coming conservatives for future careers in politics, journalism, and other endeavors where their influence can make a difference. He also worked at the White House during Ronald Reagan's first term.

Keep consultants on a short leash

Among his accomplishments with the RNC, Blackwell blazed the trail for reining in consultants who neglected door-to-door shoe leather and other "ground game" hard work required to identify voters who are willing to consider the GOP message and get Republican voters to the polls on Election Day.

Many Republicans did not vote in '08. The "72-hour strategy" up to and including the day of the election — a tactic that had worked so well in the past — fell short this time. Blackwell apparently believes it was not carried out effectively, although he avoids finger-pointing, preferring instead to look to the future. He says he has not decided whom he will vote for when the RNC meets here in Washington in a few weeks.

The candidates

The GOP chairman's job takes on special importance when the Democrats control the White House, as they will when Barack Obama is sworn in January 20. That will mean the Republican Party chairman — rather than a president — will be the voice of the party. This column would nominate Morton Blackwell himself as the obvious choice. But given his responsibilities with the Leadership Institute, that would not be feasible. In fact, one of the things he is asking the candidates for the job is whether they will be on the job fulltime if elected.

Those under consideration for the position (not all of them officially announced) are Saul Anuzis of Michigan; Tina Benkiser of Texas; Ken Blackwell of Ohio; Katon Dawson of South Carolina; Mike Duncan (incumbent) of Kentucky; Jim Greer of Florida; Chip Saltsman of Tennessee; Michael Steele of Maryland; and outgoing Sen. John Sununu of New Hampshire.

Advancing conservatism and getting out the vote

Morton Blackwell appears to agree with those who believe the party has "lost its [conservative] brand," and he cites surveys showing that public opinion agrees with him. What follows is the thrust of questions he posits to those who are considered for the chairmanship:

1 — What must be done to recover the more favorable opinion people recently had for the Republican Party? As recently as the 2004 election, the GOP appeared to be in the driver's seat for the foreseeable future.

2 — What should the chairman do to "multiply our Republican recruitment and training of new activists and leaders at the state and local levels?"

3 — "Are you confident that you have the speaking skills and effective presence on television to perform successfully against those whom the Democrats put up against you?"

4 — Noting the biased media's unfavorable portrait of the Republicans in the 2008 elections, a GOP chairman should have a strategy "to get for the Republicans a more even break in the news media leading up to the 2010 elections." Blackwell asks each candidate to spell out his/her strategy.

5 — Some of the questions go to the issue of the party taking social conservatives (anti-abortion voters, for example) for granted in much the same manner that Democrats take their black voters for granted — i.e., they want all their votes, but don't give them much say in party direction or issues orientation.

6 — Related to that, Mr. Blackwell would like to see a trend away from — as he sees it — the tendency on the part of some party leaders to support "non-conservatives for nomination in open seats, giving as a reason that a conservative candidate 'can't win.'" This is an obvious allusion to the "RINO (Republican in Name Only)" problem. "What would you do as chairman to assure conservatives that such objectionable practices will not happen on your watch?"

This is no small matter. As I write this, the Republicans have 41 seats in the new Senate, having buttoned down the Saxby Chambliss seat in Georgia. Minnesota's ballots are being recounted. That means the Democrats do not have the 60 seats they had hoped for in order to give them a filibuster-proof majority — unless...unless some Senate RINOs cross the aisle on crucial votes. Unfortunately, party discipline among the Republicans is far looser that on the Democrat side.

The consultants again

"Political consultants," according to Blackwell, "often are the only ones who make big bucks in politics." As such, their focus is on heavy advertising. Not that well-placed advertising should be neglected. But frequently, consultants — with an eye on getting their cut (sometimes a disproportionate cut) of the pie, "neglect non-commissionable campaign expenditures on such ground game activities as voter ID, voter registration, precinct organization, election-day turnout, youth efforts and other non-commissionable activity such as the use of new electronic technology."

In the past, Blackwell reportedly was responsible for seeing to it that consultants who refused to put more emphasis on the ground game were given their walking papers. He wants to know what a national GOP chairman would do to "warn candidates and party committees against employing such consultants"?

Other issues

Blackwell questions the would-be chairmen on their strategies for wooing young people, unmarried women, and other groups who went overwhelmingly Democrat in the recent election. And he also stresses a belief that minorities are gettable for the GOP. For example, blacks, Hispanics, and Asians voted for the pro-traditional marriage Proposition 8 in California — an issue of importance to social conservatives. And he wants to know — in the nuts and bolts category — what each would do in the re-apportionment fights in state legislatures following the 2010 census.

Finally, each aspirant is asked about his/her assets for the job and also how the RNC would be organized to make up for its deficiencies.

Some thoughts

Space doesn't permit spelling out all of Morton Blackwell's points. But those are the highlights. To say his questionnaire is probing is obviously an understatement. It comes from a man who has forgotten more about politics than most of us will ever know.

This column knows very little about most of the nine would-be chairmen. I do know Michael Steele, having interviewed him last year for Senior Voice magazine, the house organ of Jim Martin's Sixty-Plus organization. Steele would be a good public representative of the party. He served four years as Lt. Governor of my (heavily Democrat) state of Maryland. This is not to disparage any of the others — about whom I know little other than having interviewed Ohio's Ken Blackwell at the GOP convention in 2004, and having read a very impressive Wall Street Journal article by Michigan's Saul Anuzis.

Anyone who answers these questions to Morton Blackwell's satisfaction would be — if anything — overqualified for the job. But when you get a chairman who could make the really big bucks in the private sector, but takes on the party chairmanship because he relishes the good fight, he is bound to do well.

© Wes Vernon


The views expressed by RenewAmerica columnists are their own and do not necessarily reflect the position of RenewAmerica or its affiliates.
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