Live-blogging the vote for a new RNC Chairperson? Ballot-by-ballot coverage? Did Dave Weigel have nothing better to do last Friday or was this a desire to cover a political meeting which actually went more than one ballot in one’s lifetime? Either way it must have been a slow news day for the vote on the RNC’s new chairperson (which turned out to be Wisconsin GOP chair Reince Priebus) to gather so much attention. Indeed, one wonders if it’s the climax to an era when being a party chairperson was important.
After all, despite all his screw ups and the fact that the RNC is broke and millions and millions in the red; and despite the mismanagement of party affairs and public relations gaffes, Michael Steele’s tenure at the RNC was only a personal disaster that had no affect on the party’s electoral performance.
The 2010 midterm election disproved the notion that a smoothly running party machine is necessary for electoral success. Republicans made big gains across the country in spite of the turmoil at party headquarters in Washington D.C. Independent groups outside the party structure more than filled the void. Corporations, now more free to donate to political campaigns thanks to recent court rulings, poured in millions to candidates all across the country. And outside the Beltway, Tea Party organizations provided the grass roots muscle to work for their candidates and get their voters to the polls. The RNC could flounder with Steele as the butt of jokes and it didn’t matter. It was utterly irrelevant as far as the outcome was concerned.
Of course, RNC committee members don’t want to be irrelevant, which is why Steele was dumped and replaced by Priebus. I wrote last year that the former Racine, Wisconsin lawyer-turned-state-GOP-leader was going to become influential in national party circles–not just because he engineered a stunning turnaround in state party fortunes from 2008 to 2010. (The Wisconsin GOP won the governor’s office for the first time since 2002, won a U.S. Senate seat for the first time since 1986, and won back control of the state legislature. Plus Wisconsin Republicans gained two seats in the U.S. House of Representatives two short years after John McCain scored one of the lowest percentages for a Republican presidential nominee in the state since fellow Arizonan Barry Goldwater.) More important was the way Priebus was successful: taming the Tea Party activists by overwhelming them with well-funded, establishment-backed candidates who dominated the television and radio airwaves where Wisconsin campaigns are conducted. In voting for Priebus, committee members are basically saying they don’t want more Sharon Angles, Joe Millers, Christine O’Donnells or Ken Bucks, whose losing campaigns may have cost the party control of the U.S. Senate.
But what may work in Wisconsin may not work nationally. Independent groups have already shown they can raise money and the engage the grassroots without the RNC’s assistance. In fact it may well have helped their efforts to show such independence rather than be tied to a national party still not highly regarded.
Priebus can clean-up the mess Steele left at party headquarters–but he cannot change trends in election funding and grassroots organizing powered by technology. Howard Dean was seen as a successful DNC chairman only because he harnessed netroots organizing, which was already going on far away from party headquarters, and directed it toward individual candidates. Once upon a time in America only a centralized party structure could do such work and coordinate effectively with other interest groups. Not anymore–which means Priebus, while not a Steel-like FUBAR expert, may actually become more of a Mike Duncan footnote.