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Does the RNC Matter?

Michael Steele's unfortunate decision to seek re-election as chairman of the Republican National Committee has sparked a bit of a debate over the relevance of the organization itself.  In one corner, my friend Allahpundit over at Hot Air:

[If Steele wins reelection] Republican outside groups are bound to start planning way ahead to pick up the slack in case the RNC can’t get its act together to fulfill its traditional fundraising and GOTV roles. No one cares about the RNC as an organization, only that its functions are being done and done well by some conservative outfit. If Steele’s reelected, it means that some other outfit or outfits will be pressured to step up. Inconvenient, but not fatal. I think.

And in the other corner, Tim Mak over at FrumForum, listing three of the RNC's built-in advantages over outside groups:

1. Coordination of Expenditures

2. Voter Files and Data; Getting Out the Vote

3. 2012 Republican Convention

I worked at a state GOP as recently as a few months ago, and saw up close the interaction between the RNC and state parties, candidates and so forth.  Mak has the better argument here, for the reasons he states (and describes in his post) and for a few others.  Contrary to what Mak's boss, the head of FrumForum, thinks, labels actually do matter.

Most folks probably don't realize this, but the RNC directly supports many if not most state Republican parties around the country, particularly in the smaller states.  That support can take the form of anything from picking up expenses for this and that to managing the party's web infrastructure and mass email systems to even providing staff and gear for activities like phone banks.  The state parties, in turn, do the hard work of administering the primaries, run the conventions, work with the state Republican executive committees, recruit candidates, and so forth.

One can argue all day about the relevance of the state parties, and they have been weakened by campaign finance laws at the state and federal levels in recent years, but without them it's far more difficult for even strong candidates to win and for victors to have any kind of party cohesion.  But both from an organization and communications point of view, the state parties are indispensable.  Whether you're talking media presence, statewide messaging, caucus coordination or a host of other things that happen in and out of the public eye every day, those jobs fall to the state parties.  From precincts on up, they're built into the electoral system.  And to the extent that the RNC supports the state parties, it is indispensable in these efforts too.

None of this is to denigrate or minimize the roles of third party groups and candidate committees themselves, by the way.  Those are vital too, and they have obviously gained strength and relevance as the national committees and state parties have become weaker.

But, yes, at the end of the day the RNC matters.  And so does its chairman.  Which brings me to Mr. Steele.

I supported his first run to chair the RNC.  I don't support his second one.  I support the professional staff who make up the RNC, but the chairman needs to be replaced.

Michael Steele banked on his star power and promised, among other things, to bring his vaunted communications skills to the job.  His record on communications has been atrocious.  Gaffe after gaffe after gaffe.  Remember that time when Steele agreed when D. L. Hugley said the Republican Party looks like a bunch of Nazis?  Or when he said GOP bigwigs were scared of him because he's black? Yeah, me too.  That was unhelpful, to say the least, to Republicans up and down the food chain.  It's such a joy when you're the state communications director and the local press calls, asking questions designed to make you criticize your party's national chairman.  And then the national press calls with eerily similar questions.  And even The Daily Show crawls out of the woodwork offering you national attention if you'll step out and hammer your party's chairman.  The national chairman should never, ever, put state and local parties in such a position, but Mr. Steele did that as a matter of routine.

Those gaffes don't just hurt him and the RNC.  They trickle down to the candidates and, especially, the state parties.  Donors even at the state and local level flee whenever the RNC looks like it's in trouble or engaged in stupidity.  Steele's tenure has been one of bouncing from one kind of trouble to another, from his gaffes to his organizational failures to his financial failures.  In my opinion, Republicans may have left as many as 20 House seats in Democratic hands this cycle just because the RNC spent so much time in so much trouble because of Steele's mistakes and overall lack of organizational ability.

In my opinion, Mr. Steele should have done the graceful thing and bowed out of the upcoming chairman's race.  Even though his tenure was less than stellar, he would have gone out a winner, and the party would have probably conducted its next chairman election purely on the merits and abilities of the remaining candidates.  But with Steele in the race, it will essentially be a referendum on him.  He has already shown a pettiness and a nastiness toward his fellow Republicans during his term; having several strong candidates running against him is likely to bring even more of that counterproductive and divisive behavior out of him.  It'll make for entertaining blogging, but it won't help advance the cause.

I don't get a vote in the RNC chair election and I'm not speaking for anyone other than myself.  Underline that last sentence -- I'm not speaking for anyone but my own self.  But if I did get a vote, I would look at the candidates, find out what I can about each of them, and vote for the one who is a) most likely to fix the RNC's organizational and money problems and b) least likely to shoot off his or her mouth and hurt Republicans everywhere as a result.  Several of the known candidates fit those basic criteria, while Steele clearly doesn't.