Prominent Republican leaders say the party risks being viewed as a Southern-only bloc and must emulate Democrats' successful effort to compete in every state.
With closely watched elections for national party chairman less than two weeks off, Republican leaders say they fear the party is opening itself to branding as a Southern bastion out to snub voters elsewhere in the country.
“We have to be careful not to appear to be a regional party. We're not. But we did poorly in Congress because of that perception,” Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour told The Washington Times, although he cautioned about the RNC chairman election that “the fact that being a candidate from the South is a disadvantage doesn't mean it is a disqualifier.”
The Republican Party, which suffered devastating losses in the Northeast in November, will choose a national party chairman Jan. 30. All six candidates say they want to emulate in upcoming elections what the Democratic National Committee and President-elect Barack Obama's campaign in conducting a 50-state effort in 2008.
The need appears urgent, because there are now no House Republicans from New England and no Senate Republicans from the Pacific Coast states. The unspoken division is over how to keep social and religious conservatives, concentrated mainly in the South, a part of the Republican electoral coalition without appearing to let them control the national party or erode the affection of more socially centrist voters elsewhere in the nation.
Three of the six candidates for national chairman, however, are from the South: incumbent Mike Duncan of Kentucky, South Carolina party chairman Katon Dawson and former Tennessee party chairman Chip Saltsman.
“We don't want to let it appear we don't care about the Northeast,” said Mr. Barbour, himself a former national party chairman. “We will come back in the Northeast in the Congress.”
Some state Republican chairmen are emphatic in their agreement -- others in their disagreement.
“That was silly of Haley to say,” South Carolina RNC member Cindy Costa told The Times. “After all, he was a Southerner with a heavy accent to boot” when he was RNC chairman.
But Connecticut Republican Party Chairman Chris Healey there is “no question the regional issue is on the minds of many on the Republican National Committee, even some Southerners. And for many donors in the East and West, they are eager to put a different tone to the party's efforts.”
And some Southern chairmen share Mr. Barbour's concern about the party's regional image.
“I think Haley feels we need to have a national look and feel, not just a Southern look,” said Louisiana Republican Party Chairman Roger Villere. “He feels we need to expand our base and outlook.”
Mr. Villere skipped over the three Southern candidates to back instead former Ohio Secretary of State Ken Blackwell, one of two black candidates for national chairman.
The other two candidates are former Maryland Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele and Michigan party chairman Saul Anuzis.
In a sign of how sharply the committee is divided, two of its most senior members went public this week with different choices for national party chairman.
Robert T. “Bob” Bennett, who has been the Ohio Republican Party chairman and as well as a Republican National Committee member for 19 years, has endorsed Mr. Duncan for re-election. David Norcross, former RNC general counsel and a 20-year member of the RNC from New Jersey, endorsed Mr. Dawson.
Mr. Norcross said he agrees with Mr. Barbour's concerns but that “a person from perhaps our strongest region is better able to reach out and bridge the gap between the 'moderates' and the social conservatives. Katon told me he would do so - we have to be competitive in all regions.”
Mr. Dawson also won the endorsement this week of Mr. Barbour's nephew, Henry Barbour, also a committee member from Mississippi, despite the regionality concerns of his uncle.
The elder Mr. Barbour said that he is “not for or against anybody,” though he added that despite Mr. Duncan's success with fundraising for the 2008 election cycle, re-electing the same person after such a setback may not project the right image about the party's striving to rebuild and improve.