By Reid Wilson - 09/26/09 03:43 PM EDT
Members of the Republican National Committee, fettered for eight years
by a White House that orchestrated the party's message, are asserting
themselves in ways that could create heartburn for Beltway Republicans.
Sources on the national committee and staffers helping run day-to-day operations say it is a regular rite of passage for any party that has just lost the White House: The sudden power vacuum leaves members feeling emboldened, and sometimes angry with those in Washington who caused them to lose power.
Other committee members agree.
"The individual party members are probably more empowered now than they have been in a long time," added Wisconsin party chairman Reince Priebus.
The new-found independence is manifesting itself in the form of several state parties keeping Washington at arm's length, while other RNC members have grown frustrated and quit their posts to run for public office themselves, even if they run against candidates cultivated by national party leaders.
Though National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC) chairman John Cornyn (R-Texas) has aimed to back candidates he thinks have the best chance to win, some state party leaders have pushed back and advised Cornyn to stay out of developing primaries.
In Colorado, state party chairman Dick Wadhams told the NRSC earlier this month that backing Lt. Gov. Jane Norton (R) would hurt her candidacy. Several GOP leaders have attacked Norton as insufficiently conservative and are pushing other candidates into the race.
New Hampshire Republican Party chairman John H. Sununu told The Hill in July that he wanted the NRSC to stay out of his state's Senate primary after former Attorney General Kelly Ayotte (R) came under fire for her ties to Washington Republicans. Ayotte held a fundraiser at NRSC headquarters this week even as four other contenders, some potentially willing to dig into their own pockets to fight the primary, have emerged.
One of those considering running for Sen. Judd Gregg's (R) open seat is Sean Mahoney, the state's RNC member. In a Thursday op-ed in the New Hampshire Union Leader, Mahoney diagnosed the trouble with the GOP as stemming from candidates who spend "too much time worrying about what people in Washington think and not enough time listening to what the people in New Hampshire have to say."
Nevada Republican Party chairwoman Sue Lowden will step down from her post next week in order to explore a challenge to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), though another better-known candidate is already in the race.
And in Illinois, state party chairman Andy McKenna briefly considered challenging the NRSC's preferred candidate, Rep. Mark Kirk (R), in the Senate primary after Kirk voted in favor of cap and trade legislation earlier this summer. McKenna resigned his office and is instead running for governor.
Several RNC members said the backlash is a natural urge for independence that has less to do with any one committee than it does with Washington as a whole.
"Colorado Republicans take very seriously their responsibilities as to making decisions about who should win our nominations," Wadhams told The Hill. "It hurts a candidate if it is perceived that powerful Washington interests or power brokers even within the state are somehow making that decision for the tens of thousands of Republicans who will be involved in our nomination process."
"I have great respect for the NRSC. We cannot win this race in Colorado without them," Wadhams added. "We need them."
At times, one veteran RNC member said, state party chairmen may actually coordinate with national party committees before they urge those committees to stay out of their states. It can look good, the committee member said, when state party leaders publicly distance themselves from the national party while quietly working together behind the scenes.
Others attributed an unusually active national committee to the political wind they said is at the party's back nationally.
"It's probably just a matter of the fact that these are all people who are incredibly connected politically, both through the party and on the ground," Priebus said. "With the wind at the GOP's back right now, the ballots are going to be pretty full, and I think a lot of people see opportunities to run and win, and RNC members are no different."
A state party chairman who asked not to be named said RNC members feel the same frustration with Congressional Republicans that caused many GOP-leaning voters to stay home in 2006 and 2008.
"It's not the party, in my opinion, that got us in the shape to lose in 2006 and 2008," the chairman said. "It was the individuals who made the decisions that proved unpopular."
Therefore, he said, it should not come as a surprise that national party involvement in one race or another generates skepticism on the ground.
"There seems to be a tendency sometimes to anoint candidates," the chairman said. "We tend to be a lot more individuals, as opposed to lemmings."