DALLAS — Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour startled Republican officials from around the country with a blunt admonition Wednesday: Raise enough money to carry your state for the GOP in 2012 — or get out of the way and let someone else lead.
"The days of you and your state being able to rely on the Republican National Committee for money to get out the vote are over," Mr. Barbour told the state GOP chairmen. "You will have to raise the money yourselves."
Mixing tough language with humor, he said they are "where the rubber meets the road" and only they can find the money to get out a winning vote.
"If any of you don't think you can do that, and devote every waking hour to 2012, then you are in the wrong job, and someone else should take your place," the popular former RNC chairman said.
Mr. Barbour, who headed the RNC when the Republicans swept the U.S. House and Senate in 1994, left the committee on firmer financial footing, but the RNC's fortunes have taken a downturn in recent years — a point Mr. Barbour drove home repeatedly.
"Haley said we must be self-reliant, depending on no one but ourselves to raise the money — he was quite clear. If you don't get it, get out of the way," said RNC Vice Chairman Ruth Ulrich of Louisiana. "We are the front line and moving force in our own states in the battle for freedom."
Said RNC Redistricting Committee Chairman John Ryder: "He laid down a marker in the way only Haley Barbour can do — forcefully but with good humor."
Mr. Barbour delivered his stern admonitions at a private reception during a three-day meeting for state GOP chairmen led by new RNC Chairman Reince Priebus.
The RNC is the only campaign fundraising organization authorized to help state parties pay the costs of modern multipronged campaigns — identifying potential voters, reaching out by mail or phone, making personal visits, and hanging campaign literature on doorknobs. But former chairman Michael S. Steele left the RNC with $24 million in debt, and after four months of fervent appeals for money to retire that debt, it remains close to $20 million.
President Obama is expected to raise as much as $1 billion for his 2012 campaign, and the Democratic National Committee and the Democrat-friendly independent expenditure groups will add millions more on top of that.
The president rejected public financing of his general election campaign in 2008, which would have capped his spending at $80 million — a piddling amount by the standards set by his eventual haul of more than $700 million.
Mr. Barbour, often using the phrase "self-reliance," found a variety of ways to repeat his directives.
Mr. Ryder, a Tennessee RNC member, said Mr. Barbour told the chairmen and national committee members they "have to focus on defeating Mr. Obama, or if they aren't prepared to do that, they need to find another avocation."
One reason it is hard for the RNC to erase its debt is that donors aren't eager to open checkbooks to pay off old debts, preferring instead to finance the next election. Experienced fundraisers in both parties say it's a psychological obstacle to clear, since in reality paying off debts from the last campaign is a prerequisite for filling party coffers for the coming one.
Another reason for Mr. Barbour's self-reliance injunction is that campaign finance regulations over the years have so limited the money that can be given to the political parties that fundraising groups outside the parties' structures have grown in importance, power and wealth.
"The essence of what Haley said was any party that does not learn to successfully operate within a post-McCain-Feingold world of campaign finance regulations will soon become irrelevant," said Delaware GOP Chairman John Sigler. "All of us understand that this is an evolutionary process and firmly believe that we are well-positioned to adapt, evolve, persevere and succeed. Many have said 'This isn't your granddad's GOP,' and that is certainly true of the fundraising aspects of what we must do to succeed in 2012 and beyond."
After the windup of the meeting Wednesday, several officials remarked on both Mr. Priebus' accessibility throughout the three days here and the absence of contentiousness among factions that had characterized previous meetings — signs of a new unity that some long-serving party officials predicted would go a long way in renewing the confidence of donors.
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