- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 2, 2011

The next chairman of the Republican National Committee will face a money-raising challenge of historic proportions.

The unreleased official budget of the RNC reveals that the Republican Party’s national governing body and premier fundraising apparatus begins the 2011-12 presidential election cycle more than $20 million in the hole.

“A record for any year in the past 30 years,” Maria Cino, a candidate for the RNC chairmanship and a former deputy transportation secretary, told The Washington Times.

The budget was approved by RNC Chairman Michael S. Steele’s Budget Committee.

The document also reveals that the RNC will enter the 2012 presidential election year at least $10 million in arrears. “That is also unheard of in 30 years for a presidential year — or for that matter, any congressional election year,” Ms. Cino said.

That figure also comes from the same budget approved by Maryland RNC member Louis Pope — Mr. Steele’s hand-picked Budget Committee chairman and a supporter of Mr. Steele’s Jan. 14 re-election bid.

“We’ve never had a debt that big, ever, going into a presidential election cycle,” former RNC General Counsel David Norcross told The Times.

Federal Election Commission records show a dismal picture for the next chairman. As of Dec. 29, the RNC had $15,013,443.70 in debts and loans — $12 million more than the deepest RNC financial hole in at least 14 years.

That $15 million in IOUs compares with the zero indebtedness in the comparable period before the 2007-08 presidential cycle, the insignificant $1,446 before the 2003-04 period, the $3 million going into the 1999-2000 cycle and the $2.5 million at the comparable point before the 1995-96 presidential election period.

The contrast is even more startling in presidential election years, FEC data show. The RNC began 1996, 2004 and 2008 debt-free. Although the national committee began the 2000 presidential election year with $2 million in debt, it was $8 million less than the Steele budget says will be the case on Jan. 1, 2012.

Senior Republican officials expressed astonishment at the extent of the debt.

Unable to raise money from major donors who said they did not trust the RNC to use the money wisely under Mr. Steele’s stewardship, the national committee voted to borrow $15 million to help get it through the 2010 midterm election season.

“The Steele Budget document calls for $10 million of that debt to be carried forward into 2012 — far more than the RNC has ever had to carry forward in my memory,” Kentucky RNC member and former national committee Chairman Mike Duncan told The Times.

Mr. Steele took six months to find someone who would agree to serve as the RNC’s finance chairman - a role that requires widely acknowledged probity, the private cell phone numbers of other captains of industry and banking and the ability to recruit them to bundle maximum allowable contributions from other wealthy prospects.

RNC Finance Committee Chairman Peter Terpeluk, chosen by Mr. Steele, proved to be not up to the task, especially given the public spanking that successful former RNC finance chairmen have handed Mr. Steele over the past two years.

Mr. Terpeluk resigned in mid-December without a formal announcement or explanation.

Mr. Steele did not respond to a question e-mailed and telephoned to his press aide as to whether he would replace Mr. Terpeluk before the Jan. 14 election or wait until afterward, to fill the post if Mr. Steele wins re-election.

If Mr. Steele is replaced, the appointment of a finance chairman is likely to be a top priority for the RNC boss.

Gentry Collins, who quit last year as Mr. Steele’s chief of staff and publicly blasted his leadership, said the RNC’s base of major donors has withered with Mr. Steele at the helm.

“The choice of finance chairman is crucial any time, but especially with this unprecedented debt, and obviously I’ve given a lot of thought to who would be ideal for the role,” Mr. Collins, who ended his quest to replace his former boss at the RNC’s helm Sunday, told The Times.

Mr. Collins, 35, has considerable experience in top staff positions for Republican committees and candidates, but accumulated the fewest public commitments from RNC members.

“Ann [Wagner], Maria, Reince [Priebus], and Saul [Anuzis] are all outstanding candidates, and any of them would move the committee in a positive direction,” Mr. Collins said in his resignation statement.

Michigan RNC member Anuzis is savvy with new media, is considered reliably conservative and is popular with many members. However, he lags league leader Priebus when it comes to first-round committed votes for the chairmanship. Mr. Anuzis, 51, said he has had his mind on things other than finance chairman.

“I’m currently planning on co-chairs with a team of regional co-chairs as well,” he told The Times. “It’s going to have to be a ‘team approach’ to make this work.

“Besides, it’s too early to be talking to specific fundraisers,” Mr. Anuzis said, “That would be putting the cart before the horse.”

Mr. Priebus, 38, is a successful Wisconsin Republican chairman and was RNC general counsel and Steele chief adviser until he, too, resigned abruptly last month. Mr. Priebus won’t divulge whom he is considering for the finance post but told The Times that “naming a finance chairman and a top-notch chief of staff would be the very first of priorities.”

Asked how long it would take him to name both, he said, “Those activities would be immediate.”

Ranking at this point just ahead of the last-place Mr. Collins, the normally taciturn Ms. Cino told The Times that she would name more than one finance chairman — and do it fast.

“It is extremely important to name national finance co-chairs as quickly as possible, which is what I have proposed,” she said, adding that she has in mind “a few folks that have demonstrated great abilities in the past.”

It is Mr. Priebus, however, who is unique among the candidates because he has behind-the-scenes backing of powerful establishment Republicans such as Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour and the unexpected public endorsement of constitutional lawyer Jim Bopp.

The Indiana RNC member co-founded with Oregon RNC member Solomon Yue the RNC’s first Conservative Caucus and the RNC’s first Conservative Steering Committee.

Tied with Mr. Anuzis for third place, Wagner, tapped by Karl Rove to be RNC co-chairman during President George W. Bush’s first term and named by Mr. Bush to be ambassador to Luxembourg in his second term, has a long resume, including Missouri GOP chairwoman and successful campaign manager.

She did not respond to a question about choosing a finance chairman if elected but told members during a Dec. 1 candidates interview session that raising money would be her first, second and third priorities if elected.

Mr. Steele claims enough committed votes to put him in second place.

It will take 85 votes to pick the chairman; no candidate has even one-third that number of public commitments.