The Republican elephant in the room wasn’t in the room, but a group of contenders were already promising big changes Wednesday if they win the race to replace embattled Republican National Committee Chairman Michael S. Steele next month.
Mr. Steele chose to skip the first forum of candidates for the RNC chairman’s post, which did attract two declared candidates and two others considering entering the race. The absence of the incumbent, who has faced heavy internal criticism during his tenure as party chairman, led to some speculation he might not seek a second two-year term.
“I don’t know if it’s a signal that Chairman Steele doesn’t plan to seek re-election in January,” Texas RNC member Bill Croker told The Washington Times. “You would think that if he did, he would have agreed to appear with the others.”
Party conservatives said they scored one major victory already, as the four candidates at the forum said they would support a rule change to require failed GOP primary candidates who run as independents or third-party candidates to return all contributions made to them by the RNC and other GOP contributors.
If approved by the full RNC at its January meeting in Washington, the requirement would go into effect immediately.
The RNC had earlier voted for a similar resolution, but it would not take effect until the GOP presidential nominating convention in Tampa, Fla., in August 2012.
“If any one of these four candidates here today gets elected national chairman in January, it will be pretty hard to violate the pledge they made today,” Arizona RNC member Bruce Ash said.
The candidates avoided direct attacks on Mr. Steele, but made clear allusions to the RNC’s disappointing financial position despite the party’s big wins in last month’s midterm elections.
The big issue facing the RNC is “money first, it’s money second and it’s money third,” said Ann Wagner, a former Missouri state GOP chairwoman and a former ambassador. “A fully funded RNC is the only way we’re going to take back the White House and the United States Senate.”
Mrs. Wagner and former Michigan GOP Chairman Saul Anuzis are the only declared candidates in the race. Former RNC Chairman Mike Duncan and former RNC Political Director Gentry Collins are also eyeing the contest and attended Wednesday’s forum.
No major differences emerged among the four in presentations and answers to audience questions.
The forum in the ballroom of the Washington Hilton might be considered unfriendly territory for Mr. Steele. It was organized by the RNC’s 126-member Conservative Steering Committee and FreedomWorks, the conservative activist group headed by former House Majority Leader Dick Armey.
“Why would Michael Steele show up for something sponsored by the Conservative Steering Committee?” noted Iowa RNC member Steve Scheffler. “A year ago, he told RNC members there should not be an insurgent group like this in the first place, and that he would make sure it’s abolished.”
Constitutional lawyer and Indiana RNC member Jim Bopp, a founder of the steering committee, introduced the four participants.
Conservative activists and GOP establishment notables, including many governors, have said the RNC’s disappointing record under Mr. Steele in raising money from the party’s traditional major donors this year and his self-dealing as chairman disqualify him from serving a second two-year term - especially when the GOP state parties are going to be relying heavily on the RNC for money to get out the vote in the 2012 presidential election.
The candidates did face questions on how to build upon the party’s 2010 gains in the coming 2012 election cycle. A woman from the Blue Ridge Patriots asked the candidates how they would integrate the “tea party” movement into the RNC.
“I wouldn’t want to integrate as much as recognize and respect the independence of the tea party movement and listen to what they say,” Mrs. Wagner said.
Mr. Collins proposed that the RNC be in the forefront in repealing President Obama’s health care overhaul law and that the national party organization not meddle in state primaries.
Mr. Duncan agreed and said he already has publicly credited that the tea party “has been the catalyst for our success.”
But Mr. Anuzis said the Republican Party is “a center-right coalition, and I would never credit the tea party or the RNC or any one group with our success on Nov. 2.”