- 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 fund-raising apparatus begins the 2011-2012 presidential election cycle more than $20 million in the hole.

“A record for any year in the past 30 years,” RNC chairman candidate and former Deputy U.S. Transportation Secretary Maria Cino told The Washington Times

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

The budget 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 reelection 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 national chairman. As of Dec. 29, the RNC had $15,013,443.70 in debts and loans — or $12 million more than the deepest RNC financial hole in at least the last 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 in the same period 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-race period.

The contrast is even more startling in the actual years presidential elections took place, FEC data show. The RNC began the 1996, 2004 and 2008 presidential election years completely debt-free. And 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 elections.

“The Steele Budget document calls for $10 million of the 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 chairman Mike Duncan told The Washington Times.

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

RNC Finance Chairman Peter Terpeluk, Mr. Steele’s selection for finance chairman 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 last two years.

Mr. Terpeluk abruptly 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, a new finance chairman is likely to be a top priority for the new RNC boss.

Steele Chief of Staff Gentry Collins, who quit earlier this year and publicly blasted Mr. Steele’s leadership, said the RNC’s major-donor base 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 is running to replace his former boss at the RNC’s helm, told The Washington Times.

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

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

“I’m currently planning on co-chairs with a team of regional co-

chairs as well,” he told The Washington 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 the highly successful Wisconsin Republican chairman and was RNC general counsel and Steele chief adviser until he too resigned abruptly earlier this month. Mr. Priebus won’t divulge whom he is considering for the finance post but told The Washington 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.”

Placing at this point just ahead of the last-place Mr. Collins, the normally taciturn Ms. Cino told The Washington 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 a great abilities in the past.”

It is Mr. Priebus, however, who is unique among the candidates because he has not only the behind-the-scenes backing of powerful establishment Republicans such as Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour but also — and unexpectedly — the public endorsement of constitutional lawyer Jim Bopp.

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

Tied at the moment with Mr. Anuzis for third place, Ann Wagner, tapped by Karl Rove to be RNC cochairman in the first Bush administration and named by President Bush to be ambassador to Luxembourg in his second administration, has a long resume, including Missouri GOP chairman and successful campaign manager.

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

Mr. Steele, who claims enough committed votes to put him in second place so far.

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

• Ralph Z. Hallow can be reached at rhallow@gmail.com.

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