Hill Leaders Are Split on RNC Battle

Posted January 7, 2009 at 6:34pm

With six men bidding to become the next chairman of the Republican National Committee, Washington, D.C.’s top two Republicans once President George W. Bush leaves office — Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) and House Minority Leader John Boehner (Ohio) — have taken different approaches to the simmering contest.

McConnell is supporting the incumbent RNC chairman, Mike Duncan, who happens to also hail from the Bluegrass State.

Boehner, on the other hand, is staying neutral, despite the fact that former Ohio Secretary of State Ken Blackwell is among the six candidates.

The new RNC leadership will be chosen on Jan. 28 by 168 national committee members. The increasingly nasty race has no clear frontrunner and has exacerbated many of the fissures that already exist in the national GOP. The contest has largely divided along ideological, regional and generational lines.

In a statement provided this week to Roll Call, McConnell said he is sticking with Duncan because the incumbent, who took full control of the RNC in the middle of the 2008 cycle, did as good a job as possible under trying circumstances.

“As someone who was on the ballot last year, I saw first-hand how effective Mike’s leadership at the RNC could be in a challenging cycle,” McConnell said. “We saw that again when he led RNC efforts to help re-elect [Sen.] Saxby Chambliss [in a runoff] in Georgia. Mike is a good friend, a wonderful ally and a leader all Republicans can appreciate.”

Duncan, who has held several posts at the RNC, including general chairman, general counsel and treasurer, is a veteran Kentucky political donor and party leader. A banker by trade, he has raised money for McConnell and served as campaign chairman for Sen. Jim Bunning (R-Ky.) in 1998. He has also been a Republican National Committeeman from Kentucky and is a former state and local GOP chairman.

But home-state ties were not enough to prompt Boehner to throw his support to Blackwell — who was the 2006 Republican gubernatorial nominee in Ohio — in the upcoming RNC contest.

“Boehner has good relations with many of the candidates and thinks highly of them, but it’s going to be up to the 168 RNC members to choose the next chair,” said Don Seymour, a spokesman for Boehner’s Freedom Project political action committee.

Blackwell is a staunch social conservative who took just 37 percent of the vote against now-Gov. Ted Strickland (D) in 2006. In 2007, Blackwell formed a group called the Coalition for a Conservative Majority with former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) — and Boehner and DeLay have been anything but close allies through the years.

By virtue of his status as the incumbent, and thus the candidate closest to the greatest number of RNC voters, Duncan may have a leg up on his challengers.

But Duncan’s critics charge that under his leadership, the GOP lost not only the White House contest in 2008 but also saw further erosion of their ranks in both the House and Senate.

Three other candidates, including Blackwell, former Maryland Lt. Gov. Michael Steele and Michigan GOP Chairman Saul Anuzis, are also seen as formidable contenders, and it is possible that RNC members will have to cast multiple ballots before selecting a chairman.

South Carolina GOP Chairman Katon Dawson and former Tennessee GOP Chairman Chip Saltsman, a top adviser to former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee during Huckabee’s 2008 White House bid, are also running.

There is some talk among party leaders about drafting former Sen. Norm Coleman (Minn.) to run, assuming Coleman’s legal challenges to the state certification of Democrat Al Franken as the winner in their razor-thin Senate race are exhausted by Jan. 28.

Lauren W. Whittington contributed to this report.