Sarah Palin: The Next RNC Chairman?

Reid Wilson
Hotlline On Call
July 6, 2010

RNC chair Michael Steele spent the holiday weekend calling fellow committee members and GOP opinion leaders in an effort to walk back remarks he made last week suggesting the war in Afghanistan is a losing cause. He has been mostly successful in saving his own job, but one thing is becoming clear even to some of Steele’s closest allies: The chances of a second term atop the RNC have waned dramatically.

GOPers outside the RNC have been buzzing nervously behind the scenes for months, speculating as to how to ease Steele out of his current post. Steele’s rivals, mostly the arch conservatives on the RNC, have been quietly plotting bids against him. But now, some influential members of the 168 are beginning to jockey for position.

Steele’s future will be clear shortly after the midterm elections, when his advisors quickly canvass RNC members as to their intentions in the Jan. ’11 RNC elections. If it becomes clear Steele has a well of support, he is likely to try for a second term. If voters are reluctant, Steele may not take a shot at running a race he won’t be able to win.

After the jump, a look at some potential candidates to lead the RNC when Election Day rolls around next Jan.:

Saul Anuzis: The former MI GOP chair finished third in the ’09 RNC chairman’s race, and he quickly became a member of Steele’s kitchen cabinet. Anuzis gave up his chairmanship, but returned as his state’s national committeeman, guaranteeing himself face time with the members who will ultimately make the decision.

In ’09, Anuzis was gaining momentum as the election rolled around. Still, members wondered whether he could convey the seriousness the job entails, and questions about his ability to fundraise remain. But Anuzis could appeal to members whose major concern is electing one of their own, especially one who wouldn’t rock the boat too much. Anuzis isn’t likely to make any public moves unless and until Steele makes clear he won’t run again, but that doesn’t mean Anuzis is out altogether.

Katon Dawson: Dawson finished just behind Steele in ’09, and he’s remained one of the biggest thorns in the chairman’s side. Last week, in light of Steele’s latest gaffe, Dawson called on the incumbent to step down. Dawson is no longer chairman of the SC GOP, but he has fans, and a number of Steele voters have made clear in private that they believe they made a mistake.

But Dawson has his flaws, and they’re not going to change: Anyone who believes the ’09 contest came down to a question of race is correct, but it was because of Dawson’s membership in an all-white country club, rather than because of Steele’s race. RNC members are very cognizant of that fact, and that will work against Dawson if he moves toward another bid.

Reince Priebus: The current RNC general counsel and WI GOP chair, Priebus is perhaps Steele’s closest ally on the committee. Priebus has his own fans on the committee, and if Steele decides against running, Priebus would be the heir apparent to Steele’s most ardent backers. What’s more, he’s maintained good relations across the committee despite his close association with Steele. While some members have complained that Steele has been distant at times, Priebus has been the bridge between RNC members and their chairman.

Though it’s not clear if Priebus wants the job, or if he can improve upon his early advantages. Priebus will not run if Steele does; in fact, he won’t make any moves without Steele’s blessing. But he’s young, savvy and smart, and RNC members don’t blame him by association. If Priebus decides to make a bid, he’ll be a player.

Henry Barbour: Few have found themselves forced into the limelight as much as Barbour, the MS national committeeman and nephew of Gov. Haley Barbour (R). Dawson floated Barbour’s name as a compromise chairman if Steele were to resign. And Barbour is a member of Steele’s kitchen cabinet and close to Priebus — a factor that could make the 2 a powerful couple if an open-seat race develops.

Barbour has not tipped his hand yet, but he seems to have a lot going for him: He’s close to conservatives. He has allies among the RNC’s more pragmatic set. And he’s a bridge between generations, as a favorite of many of the younger members and someone older members have grown to respect. His uncle’s help would be a big benefit to members who think Haley Barbour should take a shot at the WH — not a small contingent of the 168 committee members.

Jan Larimer: The RNC co-chair position has not always been a serious post. It exists to ensure gender balance among RNC leadership. But Larimer, the WY national committeewoman, has done her part to make it a position that has an impact. She has used her post to encourage women candidates to get into various races, and she’s built close ties to some prominent GOPers like Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-WA).

Larimer is unwilling to criticize Steele in public, but behind the scenes she has raised questions about his leadership. Even if Steele decides to run again, he may face the second-ranking official in the party. Larimer faced 2 rivals for the co-chairmanship in ’09, but she won outright, avoiding the kind of backstabbing and hurt feelings any candidate running in a more crowded contest would have to build.

Gary Emineth: The ND GOP chairman is stepping down from his position in order to take a more active role in his business. He’s also actively exploring the idea of running against Steele in ’11.

Emineth is a longer shot than his fellow RNC members who are considered serious players; he has a following among Midwestern conservatives, but he’s not seen as a major player among members at large. Still, he’s the first one in the race, a tellingly public rebuke to the incumbent chairman.

Wild Cards: Steele won his race in ’09 despite a major drawback — he was not, at that point, a member of the RNC. Members pay attention to that factor, which gives any outsider a big hurdle to climb. And if RNC members decide they want a caretaker in advance of ’12, when their WH standard-bearer will effectively take over the GOP, an elected official or someone who wants a higher profile may not be the ideal RNC chairman.

Still, we’ve heard ex-Sen. Norm Coleman‘s (R-MN) name bandied about as a possibility. Coleman runs the American Action Network, an independent group that is planning to raise and spend millions helping GOPers win election in the midterms. If he raises that money and gets good marks, Coleman could generate more buzz for his future.

Despite a brief round of stories this weekend, ex-AK Gov. Sarah Palin (R) is not a serious contender to chair the RNC. RNC members who control and influence big blocs of votes respect Palin, but they don’t believe she will be a player in the party’s future. Steele has made a few gaffes, but RNC members shudder to think of a Palin chairmanship.

Other RNC members will at least contemplate the idea of running for the top job. AZ GOP chair Randy Pullen, the national treasurer, has gotten good marks for internal audits. Members believe CA GOP chair Ron Nehring will contemplate a bid at some point, but he is one of the committee’s younger members.

Copyright 2010 by National Journal Group Inc.

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