WASHINGTON – Republican National Committee Chairman Mike Duncan is in the crosshairs as various segments of the GOP mount a campaign to give a party still reeling from presidential and congressional election losses an image makeover.
Duncan, whom some fellow Kentucky Republicans call “Mr. Inside,” is closely allied with President Bush. That connection, coupled with the push to distance the party from an unpopular administration, has turned the race for the committee chairmanship into a symbolic fight over the ideological soul of the party.
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich has emerged from the fray as a voice of change, promising to get the party back on track. Supporters are pushing him as a possible replacement for Duncan.
“The Republican National Committee has to ask itself if it wants someone who has successfully led a revolution,” Randy Evans, Gingrich’s friend and legal counsel, told several media outlets last week. “If it does, Newt’s the one.”
Former Maryland Lt. Gov. Michael Steele, Michigan Republican Party Chairman Saul Anuzis and Republican leaders from Florida, Mississippi and South Carolina also are gunning for the post.
While Duncan hasn’t officially made a bid for the chairmanship and Gingrich says he’s uninterested in it, supporters nonetheless are lobbying on their behalf. Members will vote on a new chairman in January.
In the meantime, Duncan and Gingrich are making the rounds, discussing the state of the party with anyone who’ll listen.
Their approaches are starkly different.
“The Republican Party, right now, is like a midsized college team trying to play in the Super Bowl,” Gingrich said Friday. “We have to be honest about our shortcomings as a governing party. … You have to see the 2006 and 2008 losses together and recognize that the Republican Party has a performance failure, and the American people, who have not changed ideologically, are sending a message that they want a performance change.”
Duncan was more nuanced during an interview last week with MSNBC’s Andrea Mitchell attributing losses to “the national mood,” but saying that the nation is still center-right and the fundamental principles of the nation remain unchanged.
The battle over GOP leadership reflects profound problems within the party, said Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics. Republicans, he said, need to find leadership that better reflects the nation’s changing demographic.
“They lost badly for the second election in a row,” Sabato said. “Historically, two things happen when a party loses badly. There’s a long period of introspection, where the leaders ask, ‘What did we do wrong?’ and ‘Can we change?’
“Second, there’s a search for new leaders that can generate change for an election win.”