The candidates vying to lead the Republican National Committee predicted at a Monday debate that the Obama administration would outspend its political capital and spark a ballot box backlash.
“I think they’re going to give us the gift of an overreaching, overpowering government that will limit our freedom,” South Carolina Republican Party Chair Katon Dawson said, arguing that Obama’s agenda would amount to “overpromising and building up bigger government.”
Saul Anuzis, who chairs the Michigan GOP, agreed that Obama’s agenda would open up political opportunities for Republicans.
“What is the conservative alternative to the things that Barack Obama and his administration propose?” Anuzis asked. “Big-government conservatism was an oxymoron.”
Another contender, former Ohio Secretary of State Ken Blackwell, warned that the outgoing administration had paved the way for ambitious Democratic spending plans.
“Unfortunately, I think President Bush in the last few months has opened up the door to Mr. Obama’s big government,” Blackwell said.
The candidates met at a debate hosted by the conservative group Americans for Tax Reform and moderated by ATR President Grover Norquist, who hailed the event as “the first public, televised debate in the history of the republic, for the chairmanship of the RNC.”
In his opening remarks, Norquist also took a shot at Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine, who has been tapped to lead the Democratic National Committee, calling him “the tax-increasing governor of Virginia.”
The contest for RNC chair has heated up in recent days, as candidates and committee members have converged on Washington for three debates and forums that will help decide the outcome of the race.
At Monday’s event, however, the candidates agreed more than they disagreed about the challenges facing the GOP and the political priorities for the next chair – including the need to upgrade the party’s use of technology and improve its poor performance among minorities.
“If we don’t do something about it we are going to be the permanent minority in this country,” said incumbent RNC Chair Mike Duncan, who is running for re-election, pointing out that Puerto Rico recently elected a conservative Republican as governor.
Michael Steele, the former lieutenant governor of Maryland and current chairman of the conservative group GOPAC, called on RNC members to lead by example.
“I think the key to this whole thing is, get out of your comfort zone. How many state chairmen have actually been to an NAACP meeting?” Steele said, prompting several of his competitors to raise their hands. “How long have we been talking about this?”
Several contenders called for a 50-state investment in party-building and candidate recruitment that echoed Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean’s post-2004 election call for a more expansive list of electoral targets for his own party.
“We must abandon the 28-state strategy that has been in play for the last presidential cycles,” Blackwell said.
Former Tennessee Republican Party Chair Chip Saltsman even pointed to Dean’s home state of Vermont as an example of the unconventional territory where Republicans could succeed.
“Vermont has a Republican governor and lieutenant governor. The lieutenant governor is very unabashedly pro-life and still leads the ballots in getting elected,” Saltsman said. “Every state, if we are going to be the majority party, needs a basic infrastructure if we are going to be the majority party.”
Despite his incumbency, Duncan pledged to “bring significant change to the Republican Party,” citing a plan calling for “victory directors in every state starting immediately.”
Where the candidates clashed, it was more often in the process of comparing personal qualifications than debating the future of the party.
In a testy exchange at the start of the debate, Blackwell took a shot at Dawson’s red-state background.
“I know that I’ve won more elections than perhaps anyone on this stage, with the exception of Chairman Dawson,” Blackwell said sarcastically. “We all know how hard it is to win elections in that swing state of South Carolina.”
Moments later, Dawson pushed back, noting that he’d become politically active when the Republican Party at a moment when Democrats were in power in South Carolina.
“Unlike Mr. Blackwell, who thinks winning in our state is easy, it’s hard,” he said.