For most of the nation’s press, it’s no secret whom influential Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour is backing in the race for the next GOP chairman, but the one-time party chairman — and possible 2012 presidential hopeful — denies he’s orchestrating the campaign that has given Wisconsin Republican Party Chairman Reince Priebus strong momentum in the race.
With the election a month away, on Jan. 14, the backroom dealing has been heating up, even as embattled incumbent Republican National Committee Chairman Michael S. Steele revealed last week that he will run for a second two-year term.
Mr. Priebus, a one-time Steele backer who served under him as the RNC general counsel, is one of a pack of candidates seeking to replace Mr. Steele, who has faced heavy criticism of his handling of party finances, frequent media gaffes and accusations of self-dealing since winning election in January 2009.
Other declared contenders include Saul Anuzis, former chairman of the Michigan Republican Party; Ann Wagner, head of the Michigan GOP; Gentry Collins, who resigned last month as the RNC’s general counsel; and former George W. Bush administration official Maria Cino, who has picked up endorsements from party heavy-hitters such as former Vice President Dick Cheney.
In such a crowded field, an endorsement from Mr. Barbour, credited by many in the party and the press with engineering the Republican congressional takeover in 1994 when he ran the RNC, could be a valuable asset.
“I am not for anybody for chairman, and I do not expect to support anybody for chairman, but we do need to have a change,” Mr. Barbour said. “Several people running look like they are qualified.”
Even as Mr. Barbour is keeping quiet, two of the governor’s closest allies — nephew Henry Barbour, a Mississippi RNC member, and David Norcross, a former RNC general counsel under Mr. Barbour — signed a letter to the 168 members of the RNC endorsing Mr. Priebus. Both say they acted on their own and merely informed Gov. Barbour of their intention to back Mr. Priebus.
As state party chairman, Mr. Priebus is credited with raising a record $14 million in Wisconsin over three years, despite having to deal with what Henry Barbour calls “the strictest campaign-finance laws in the country.”
“He also helped organize the best [organizational] ground game in the country, stayed on message, managed the ‘tea party’ [activists] and other parts of our coalition, helped recruit strong candidates and delivered the most impressive victories in the country,” the younger Mr. Barbour said.
Wisconsin Republicans in November wrested the governorship and a Senate seat from Democrats, picked up two House seats formerly held by Democrats and boosted their numbers significantly in the state Legislature.
“The biggest question Reince has to answer is why didn’t he stand up to Steele when Steele violated RNC rules through making paid speeches and reaping profits from a book deal,” Mr. Bopp told The Times.