Smoke Signals to Watch for the RNC Race Tomorrow

Amanda Carpenter

1/29/2009 3:46:00 PM - Amanda Carpenter
A new Republican National Committee Chairman will be chosen tomorrow and trying to predict which way the 168 RNC members will vote in an election that could take as many as six ballots to settle is difficult.

“It’s junior high in suits,” one person closely involved managing the campaign of one the leading candidates told me, indicating the erratic and at times, immature, nature of the race.

Many activists outside of the RNC have criticized members for using their GOP leadership status to take trips to Washington and hold court with the President rather than winning races.

Now, that the party is out of power, the grassroots are openly  questioning RNC member commitment. This frustration has contributed to the circus-like atmosphere surrounding a normal stodgy election---especially on conservative blogs.

Today, members are being heavily lobbied for support in Washington by the candidates with receptions, meetings and even specially-made welcome bags filled with goodies, like current Chairman Robert “Mike” Duncan had waiting for members when they checked into their hotel.

The behind-the-scenes campaigning for the party’s top slot in the run-up to the race has been brutal. Candidates have criss-crossed the country over the past few months making house calls, vying for endorsements and commitments. And, like any election, there’s been lots of opposition research leaked along the way.

Race watchers say the first two ballots are only a test of support for each of the candidates. Chairman Duncan may only receive 50 out of 168 votes in the first round.
If this happens his opponents will try mightily to spin those votes as a negative referendum on his management of the 2008 elections and urge them to flip their commitments for later ballots.

The most interesting ballot to watch could be the third, where the party’s old bulls may defect from Duncan and throw their support to another candidate, which would probably be scattered among, in no particular order, Saul Anuzis, Katon Dawon and Michael Steele.

The candidate who picks up the most open votes at this point, will likely win. And, it appears to be anyone's game.

Just like with the Iowa's Democratic caucuses, it's incredibly important in a multi-ballot race that candidates plan and solicit votes for the second, third ballots and beyond to remain competitive. Some candidates have been putting in a lot more effort to pick up the second and third commitments than others. Members indicate Duncan and Ken Blackwell have been playing "big" meaning, they've sought first ballot commitments and little else, which significantly decreases their chances of winning.

One curious question looming a day before the race is if former Mike Huckabee Presidential Campaign Manager Chip Saltsman has enough support to qualify for a ballot.  Saltsman, former GOP Tennessee chairman, wasn't even endorsed by committee members in his homestate. Half of them endorsed South Carolina candidate Dawson instead.

To secure a place on the ballot each candidate must have the backing of a majority of delegates from three different states, according to party rules.

Update at 5pm: Blackwell's team distributed a "final strategy memo" to ensure supporters will stick with their candidate through six ballots--although his opponents say Blackwell hasn't secured enough 2nd, 3rd, and 4th ballots to be competitive.

"It is absolutely critical that every supporter who is committed to this team is also committed to voting for Ken Blackwell through at least six ballots. Ken or one of the campaign Co-Chairs will be calling everyone this week to re-confirm that this is the case," it said

Their memo also predicted Duncan will receive somewhere around 65 votes.

"Our internal counts currently have Ken doing very well with positions 2, 3, 4, and 5 tightly bunched in the 20’s in terms of hard commitments. If any candidate not named Mike Duncan claims to be in the high 30’s or 40’s please politely ask them to show you a list or stop spinning," it said. "We believe that candidates in placements 2-5 will be separated by a relatively small number of votes. Therefore, as long as the campaigns are competitive, there won’t be much difference between coming in 2nd or 5th. Help us to make sure our supporters do not get nervous about a 5th nor overconfident about a 2nd."