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Republicans' Dilemma: Michael Steele's Replacement

4 years ago
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Although his tenure as Republican National Committee chairman has been peppered with high-profile resignations, sex club allegations, frequent gaffes and fundraising woes, the calls for Michael Steele's resignation prompt a larger question: Who to put in his place?

Steele's term runs out in January, so he's likely to hang on. The bigger issue confronting the Grand Old Party is who, in the absence of an agreed-upon national leader (i.e., a president or a presidential nominee), is the best kind of person to assume the party apparatus as the GOP attempts to recapture one or both houses of Congress and possibly the White House in 2012.

Six Politics Daily writers offer their thoughts -- some serious, some whimsical. You be the judge which is which.

Jill Lawrence: GO NORTH, GO FEMALE

The next chairman of the RNC will serve at a time when the party's 2012 presidential hopefuls will be in the spotlight. Keeping that in mind, Republicans might want to choose a party chair who has demonstrated skills as an executive or administrator, and not worry too much about charisma. Ideally, their new chairman would be a chairwoman, as a way of addressing a persistent gender gap. And she would not be a Southerner. That region is already strong for the GOP. The party needs someone who can reach out and look to the future. Here are two prospects:

Maria Cino: A native of Buffalo, N.Y., Cino has decades of experience in leadership positions in the Republican Party and in the federal government. She was acting transportation secretary and deputy transportation secretary in George W. Bush's administration. She's also been executive director of the National Republican Congressional Committee, national political director of the 2000 Bush campaign and deputy chairman of the RNC. In 2008 she was president and chief executive of the Republican convention; her management skills won rave reviews from local authorities. Cino is currently a lobbyist for Pfizer. That's a downside in this climate, but not fatal when compared with her qualifications for this job.

Jodi Rell: Rell has been governor of Connecticut since mid-2004 and is not running for re-election. An ethics crusader and fiscal conservative, she served 10 years in the state House and nearly a decade as lieutenant governor before a scandal toppled Gov. John Rowland and she ascended to his job. Rell's conservative credentials include vetoing a repeal of the death penalty and trying to block creation of a public health insurance plan in her state (it passed over her veto). Rell was mentioned as a possible vice presidential contender in 2008. Among her credentials to head the RNC: She's very popular in a region where the GOP desperately wants and needs to make a comeback.


Although big GOP wins in November may give Michael Steele reason to try for a second term, that is probably not in the cards. But what type of party leader is best?

The person who chairs a major political party should be solid on four fronts: politics, of course; fundraising; public policy; and dealing with the media. Former Gov. Jeb Bush of Florida would be a safe, blue-chip choice who would hit all four marks. So would Gov. Haley Barbour of Mississippi, who held the job during the Clinton presidency, and had his hands on the levers in 1994 when Republicans swept to victory in the midterm elections -- exactly what they want to do in 2010. Haley Barbour may not want to try to reprise that tough-to-follow act, especially since he's already chairman of the Republican Governors Association. But if Gov. Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota does not catch on in his early 2012 soundings for the White House, he is another proven commodity who could switch his sights to party chief.

Former Speaker Newt Gingrich has the policy stuff down, but may be too invested in his own agendas to lead the party. And what about former Gov. Sarah Palin of Alaska? She's mentioned as a 2012 presidential contender, but who knows? If she wanted to stop earning millions and run the RNC, she has pizazz for sure -- and is already the de facto head of a populist movement. She just may be too controversial, even in a big Republican tent.

Walter Shapiro: TEA PARTY TAMER

The myth that is apt to complicate the GOP's search for a replacement for Michael Steele is the belief that a national party chairman has to be good on television. Nonsense. All that is required of a party leader is to be non-embarrassing and non-controversial – on or off television. Steele flunked on all these counts. Still, there is no need to search for the right telegenic face (or an already famous figurehead) because national party chairmen are guests on the TV Sunday talk shows only when the bookers cannot find a single breathing administration official or senator.

What the Republicans need now is a leading political operative and not an ideological leader. Ken Mehlman, who lacked the grandiose strategic arrogance of Karl Rove, played that role as Republican chairman during the 2004 campaign. While he is now prospering on Wall Street and probably cannot be lured back to the Republican National Committee, Mehlman is that rare veteran of the Bush years who remains untarnished by the disastrous second term. Another smart and adept GOP technician is Kevin DeWine, who took over as Ohio GOP chairman in 2009 after serving as the state party's executive director. DeWine, who is attempting to tame the Tea Party movement in Ohio, understands that elections in this up-for-grabs state are fought out and decided in the center.


Capitol Hill insiders say they expect Michael Steele to fill out the rest of his rocky term. But whenever Steele goes, the Republican Party faces what one veteran calls an "existential crisis" as the GOP tries to capitalize on a restless electorate while also rebuilding a tarnished brand and dealing with an unwieldy Tea Party movement that is nearly as fed up with the Republican establishment as it is the Democrats.

Since the hugely popular (former committee chairman) Haley Barbour has his hands full as governor of Mississippi, some party stalwarts say the next best thing could be Henry Barbour, the governor's nephew and former campaign manager -- a seasoned politico in his own right. The younger Barbour would bring along his uncle's Rolodex for fundraising purposes, while being a fresh enough face to avoid the baggage of other possible contenders. On the down side, a white, Southern male wouldn't do much to broaden the party's appeal. But if Henry Barbour can organize and raise the money (the top jobs for the chairman), then the Republicans' non-traditional 2010 lineup featuring numerous female and minority candidates can do the rest.


Some believe the best candidates to run political parties are seasoned politicians with histories of winning elections and raising money. Michael Steele, the man currently holding the top political job in the Republican Party, actually fits that profile. Let's not forget: He was lieutenant governor of Maryland before running unsuccessfully for Senate in 2006. Unfortunately, Steele crosses our field of vision mostly these days when he shoots his mouth off -- sacrificing credibility for attention-getting sound bites.

My candidate for his replacement is Arizona state Sen. Pamela Gorman, currently running for Congress. Gorman certainly seems to have the firepower for the job. The attractive, soft-spoken, conservative Christian supports states' rights, the Second Amendment, limited government, and staunchly opposes abortion. She reminds me a little of Bree Hodge, the character played by Marcia Cross on ABC's "Desperate Housewives." As a bonus, Gorman strikes me as a straight shooter. Check out this campaign video currently circulating to solicit donations.


Republicans might want to keep two things in mind as they cast about for Michael Steele's successor. The first is that he still has some defenders within the party, especially the Tea Party wing. The second is that he is the first person of color to hold that job -- and whatever his perceived failings, Steele helped change the public face of the GOP.

So, are there minority entrants out there who could pass muster on the issues the Republican base will not compromise on?

Yes, and one of them is already a household name in this country, and his stance on a host of issues -- most recently the Second Amendment -- are, literally, the law of the land. That's Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas we're talking about, of course. Politics Daily legal affairs writer Andrew Cohen wrote recently about a nascent Clarence Thomas for president movement. Doesn't he need some political experience, first?

Notwithstanding Jill Lawrence's point about the gender gap, maybe the GOP just wants to forget questions such as color and gender and pick the Republicans Party's resident bad-ass. I'm talking, of course, about arch-conservative author, actor, and martial arts champion Chuck Norris.

If you have high school kids, you've heard them: Chuck Norris jokes. [Sample: "When Chuck Norris does push-ups, he doesn't push himself up, he pushes the Earth down." Or, "Some people wear Superman pajamas. Superman wears Chuck Norris pajamas."]

My favorite: "Chuck Norris ordered a Big Mac at Burger King -- and got one." Isn't that the kind of leader the Republicans need? In 2008, Norris endorsed Mike Huckabee for president, an endorsement Huckabee announced with a straight-faced Chuck Norris joke of his own: "My plan to secure the border? Two words: Chuck Norris."

The Huck didn't win the White House, but it wasn't Norris' fault. Or as the teenagers might say: "Chuck Norris doesn't need Mike Huckabee. Mike Huckabee's party needs Chuck Norris."

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