Four of five candidates hoping to head the Republican National Committee said the RNC must do a better job of raising money for future get-out-the-vote programs during a debate Monday at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C.
The fifth candidate -- incumbent RNC Chairman Michael Steele -- strongly disagreed. He argued the GOP's success in 2010 should earn him a second term on Jan. 14: "My record stands for itself: We won," Steele said.
Steele's four challengers frequently referenced the RNC's money problem
and alluded to the RNC's perceived failure under Steele's watch
to fully fund a get-out-the-vote program.
"It is time for some tough love," candidate Ann Wagner
of Missouri said at the start of the 90-minute debate, sponsored by the Americans for Tax Reform
(ATR) and The Daily Caller
. The RNC "is broken and it needs to be fixed," she said.
Former Wisconsin GOP Chairman Reince Priebus
(a former Steele ally) added: "Our country is about to walk off a fiscal cliff." He said the RNC needs a chairman "who will be an absolute workhorse."
, the former chairman of the Michigan Republican Party, told the crowd of 500 that he can successfully "articulate the message, make the trains run on time, and raise the money."
But Steele's challengers insisted the party's get-out-the-vote program for the midterms fell short.
"We do need a fully funded GOTV (get out the vote) program," said Priebus. "Money is going to be the No. 1 priority for the next chairman of the RNC."
Candidate Maria Cino
, who previously served as deputy RNC chairwoman, said it was under her leadership that the RNC originally funded and implemented its "72-hour task force" for turning out the vote. "I've trained for this job most of my life," added Cino. "I know what it takes to retire big debts . . . I'm a fudraiser."
But Steele shot back: "We didn't have a 72-hour get-out-the-vote program -- we had a 20-month get-out the-vote program. The idea that we didn't really fund it is a misnomer."
Steele's argument is essentially that he turned the program over to the states: "At the end of the day," Steele said, "the national party's role is to stay out of the state party's business."
While money -- and Steele's competence -- was at the forefront of the debate, social issues certainly did not take a back seat, with the Susan B. Anthony List's Marjorie Dannenfelser asking several questions about issues such as marriage and abortion.
All candidates agreed Planned Parenthood should be not receive any government funding.
Each of the attendees agreed marriage is an institution between one man and one woman. Wagner scored some points with the crowd, saying: "I've been faithfully and, I guess, happily married for 23 years."
Steele, however, equivocated a bit, saying he was pro-marriage, but then adding the caveat: "not to the exclusion of others, not to diminish anyone's individuality."
Wagner noted that as a standard bearer, a GOP chairman must be a fiscal, social and national security conservative. "If you can't carry all three," she said, "I don't think you should be serving as chairman of the Republican National Committee."
Anuzis resisted this opportunity to argue for a litmus test, saying, "If a candidate supported our platform at least 80 percent or more, I would consider him a Republican."
Steele drew his biggest applause for the night when he argued: "We cannot be a party that sits back with a litmus test and excludes."
Priebus shot back, saying, "If you are pro-abortion, pro-stimulus, pro-GM bailout . . . then you probably aren't a Republican." Just one person clapped.
The biggest applause of the night came when Cino said passing McCain/Feingold was the GOP's biggest mistake. She also added that spending too much had been a problem. "We've got a second lifeline here -- we need to use it," she added.
But when Cino parried a question asking whether she had lobbied on behalf of "Obamacare
," many in the audience voiced disapproval.
All candidates praised the Tea Party for its efforts.
Wagner argued for a "virtual precinct," as a way to incorporate young people and technology into the process.
At one point, Steele almost sounded like he was giving parting advice, counseling the next RNC chairman: "At the end of the day, you don't get to dictate the terms to the speaker of the House . . . And if you get it wrong, you'll be reminded -- you don't do policy."
While the hall was filled with media types and the usual GOP gadflies, around 15 actual RNC members (there are a total of 168 RNC members who can vote) were in attendance. The list of members in attendance
included Alex Mooney (Maryland), Sharon Day (Florida), Ron Nehring (California), James Bopp (Indiana) and Morton Blackwell (Virginia).
The debate was moderated by The Daily Caller's Tucker Carlson and ATR's Grover Norquist. This is the second RNC chair debate to be hosted by Americans for Tax Reform. Norquist said the debate has now become "a tradition."
After Steele's election, many believe that the RNC is now unlikely to elect a new chairman who is not currently a member of the RNC. That the incumbent chairman would be on stage with so many competent challengers probably preordains his loss.