Gentry Collins, one of the candidates for chairman of the Republican National Committee, has been cornered by the Tea Party. Stepping off the stage Wednesday at a forum for candidates to replace RNC Chairman Michael Steele, Collins runs headlong into JoAnn Abbott, a Tea Party activist from Woodbridge, Va., who is sporting a hat with buttoned-on slogans like "WAR never solved anything, except slavery, genocide, Nazism, and fascism." Abbott pins Collins between herself and the Gadsden flag that has been put on the stage.
"About the RINOS," she says, referring to the members of the GOP whom conservatives consider Republicans In Name Only. "Can we not give them as much money to run again? I mean, can we have a base, a base of funding support, and if they vote the wrong way, the next time that gets cut in half?"
"I want a litmus test!" interrupts Abbott.
"Well," Collins says, restarting, "one of the things you find—and a lot of people talk about a litmus test—is that the RNC doesn't actually fund many candidates. A lot of our donations are for party-building purposes." He explains that her concerns about the RNC funding rotten candidates are admirable, but it's not really something the RNC does. He explains that the RNC did not fund Lisa Murkowksi's write-in bid or post-election legal actions.
Abbott is placated somewhat. Collins is the former political director of the RNC who left his position, blasted Michael Steele's mismanagement, and then launched a bid to replace Steele, all in eight days. His presence at this forum—in fact, the existence of the forum itself, which is sponsored by the Tea Party group FreedomWorks—is the latest exhibit of the Tea Party's newfound power in the GOP.
The thing is, neither Collins nor the seven other people who've said they're interested in this job need to win over Abbott. There are 168 voting members of the RNC, including the party chairs in all states and territories and the committeemen from those states and territories. To become chairman, a candidate just needs the support of a majority of them. That's it.
Since 2008, the race for RNC chairman has become a conservative proxy fight over whatever, at the moment, is vexing conservatives. This is odd, because the RNC plays little to no role in internal debates among conservatives. It's become the fashion to blame Steele for everything—and this debate, which he didn't attend, comes the day before the release of an RNC financial report that will reveal exactly how much Republicans can blame him—so this, in part, can be blamed on him, too. After the 2008 elections, Steele announced his bid to run the RNC on an episode of Hannity & Colmes. His pitch was entirely about keeping faith with the Republican base. "There have been countless Republicans at the grassroots levels talking about staying true to who we are, focused on the message of this party and moving forward," Steele said.
At the time, Republicans had Mike Duncan, an efficient and low-key chairman who had nonetheless presided over an excruciating defeat. The job had other aspirants, like South Carolina GOP Chairman Katon Dawson, who could point to victories in their home states. Their supporters pointed out that Steele, while one of the most talented speakers in the party, had not revealed a talent for organization in his political days in Maryland, or in his stewardship of GOPAC, or ever.
Steele got past this and won. Republicans have spent the last two years regretting it, even as the party has been successful. If Steele's value was as a fresh face for the party whom the base could trust, the base found another solution to that problem one month after Steele got his job. The solution was the Tea Party.
At the FreedomWorks forum, the heads of the group's PAC, Russ Walker and Max Pappas, brought four RNC chair candidates and plenty of key members to a ballroom of the Washington Hilton to pay their respects to the movement. Respects were paid. West Virginia Tea Partier Dee Armstrong rose to inform the would-be chairmen that the RNC, if it did its work, was an auxiliary of the movement.
"They didn't do Nov. 2," she said. "The Tea Party made that happen."
She got no disagreement.
"I think we, as a group, did this together," said Saul Anuzis, the former GOP chairman from Michigan. "I would never claim that the Republican Party did it. I would also, with all due respect, not claim the Tea Party did it. I would claim it was regular Americans who were members of the Tea Party—good, old, mad-as-hell Americans."
"We have to reflect the true, independent nature of these Tea Parties that are out there," said Ann Wagner, who chaired senator-elect Roy Blunt's campaign in Missouri this year.
"The Tea Party was the catalyst of victories this fall," said Mike Duncan, who showed up because he's considering another run at the job. And Duncan proved his Tea Party bona fides to the crowd by reminding them of the work he'd done for Rand Paul, Kentucky's new senator.
Two years into the Tea Party movement, getting even the most establishment of Republicans to agree on their goals is not a problem. The candidates were left to distinguish themselves by explaining just how fervently they believed in the Gospel of Rick Santelli. Wagner, who spent four years as the U.S. ambassador to Luxembourg, informed the crowd that she had worked in the "heart of Europe."
"I left after four years of living in and around socialism," said Wagner. "What it really did on a daily basis for me and my children, and my husband, who came back and forth—it deepened our love, our appreciation, and our respect for America. I believe in American exceptionalism. I believe in the soul of America and the things that make us, not better, but unique."
The keep-the-faith speechifying freed up the candidates to talk about the reason they're actually running: money. And they were blunt on this point. Before running, said Anuzis, he made calls to the biggest donors he could contact to sound them out; he was horrified that they hadn't been contacted by Steele. Collins had the same experience. Duncan boasted that his post-RNC gig running the third-party group American Crossroads had kept him plugged in to the biggest donors in the country.
Afterward, I asked Duncan what role he thought the two big players of 2010 had in the GOP's win—the Tea Party, and the big donors he was channeling through American Crossroads.
"We worked very well together," he said. "We tried not to go at cross purposes with the Tea Party. We did not enter a single primary. Our cost of fundraising was 5 percent, by the way, which was just a phenomenal thing. We lived the life the Tea Party talks about—we were fiscally responsible!"
I had a different question for Wagner. The Tea Party was, obviously, obsessed with the ideological purity of the candidates it backed. And yet she'd helped Roy Blunt in his easy Senate campaign in Missouri, even though as the GOP minority whip in 2008 he'd done the unforgiveable and voted for TARP. How did Blunt bring the Tea Party in line with the GOP? It was deceptively easy.
"He sat down with activists," she said. "He explained where he stood. And, of course, often you'll find that people may not agree on their candidate, but they'll agree on the need to oppose the other party's candidate. We can integrate these new groups out there with some of the existing coalitions and groups that they have."
Collins' idea for making this happen is for states to bolster conservative turnout in 2012 by making sure anti-"ObamaCare" initiatives were on the ballot. It was a successful strategy for Republicans in 2004, when conservatives turned out for anti-gay marriage initiatives.
Collins was just wrapping up his conversation with Abbott when I asked him about this. "Have a sign up that says 'Don't Feed the RINOs,' " she suggested. "Have that trickle down to the states. Don't feed the RINOS. Because the snow falls on us all!"
Collins went on to explain what the RNC could do to boost state initiatives. The hard work of bringing in big donors wouldn't be hampered. There would be no infighting about whether a particular candidate was too RINO-esque to deserve support or if RNC money was being spread around in a state party that was helping RINOs.
It isn't unheard of for a party committee to do this. But isn't it what groups like FreedomWorks, smaller Tea Party groups, and a constellation of conservative organizations already do?
"Yes," he said, as the Gadsden flag was packed up. "But we can make them work together."