Nobody in the race for chairman of the Republican National Committee has attracted as many high-profile conservative movement supporters as has former Ohio Secretary of State Ken Blackwell. And it's true that conservatives have a host of good reasons to be high on Blackwell. But while Blackwell clearly would re-energize the movement, he is not rightly seen as appealing only to conservatives. This is a man with a history of winning elections and a comprehensive plan for helping his party win plenty more of them, at all levels of government.
First, to be clear: The list of conservatives who have endorsed Blackwell's campaign is more than impressive. Former Reagan Attorney General Ed Meese. American Conservative Union Chairman David Keene. Former presidential candidate and supply-side economic champion Steve Forbes. Focus on the Family Chairman James Dobson. Legendary conservative direct-mail guru Richard Viguerie. Former Reagan Budget Director James C. Miller. Eagle Forum President Phyllis Schlafly. Club for Growth President Pat Toomey. American Spectator Publisher Al Regnery. Family Research Council President Tony Perkins. Media Research Center President Brent Bozell. Virginia National Committeeman and conservative youth trainer extraordinaire Morton Blackwell (no relation to the candidate)....
And on and on the list goes.
Even longer than the list of prominent conservative backers is the list of impressive items on Blackwell's résumé. In elective office, he has been mayor of Cincinnati, Ohio State Treasurer, and two-term Ohio Secretary of State. In appointive office he has been U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Human Rights Commission, an undersecretary (under Jack Kemp) of HUD, and on official commissions for the Department of Labor, on retirement savings, and on tax reform. He has won awards for his work in government finance and in technology. And he has served on more boards and been given more honorary degrees than most people would do in several lifetimes.
Blackwell is quite good on TV. He's even better on a podium, and even better yet in a large roundtable discussion. He has every bit of "presence" you would expect from a college football linebacker who was invited to training camp by the Dallas Cowboys -- which is what he was, before getting a graduate degree and teaching for 17 years at his alma mater, Xavier University. He speaks forcefully, with a real directness. He speaks with the authority of a man who knows his facts and knows his mind.
He is superb fund-raiser, having garnered some $12 million in contributions in his race for governor of Ohio in 2006. Fund-raising ability is, of course, absolutely essential for a party chairman.
But it is, of course, his 37%-61% defeat in the 2006 governor's race which critics use to pierce his armor. If he is such a good politician, they say, how could he have lost so badly?
To be blunt, the premise of the question is poppycock. Incumbent Republican U.S. Senator Mike DeWine did only a little better, with his 44 percent of the vote a very weak showing for a re-election effort. The problem, of course, was that Republicans were wiped out statewide in Ohio, all over the ticket, in 2006. No Republican running that year could have won. The state's party had been wrecked by scandals and convictions, mainly involving the administration of Robert Taft: the feckless, centrist namesake of his grandfather, the great conservative U.S. Senator from 1939-1953. (The corruption never touched Blackwell personally, not even close.) And of course 2006 was an awful year nationally, with President George W. Bush's horribly unpopular presidency at the time dragging down Republicans all over the place.
By virtue of his office but through no fault of his own, Blackwell had been hurt more than most by Bush's unpopularity because Ohio voters associated him in their minds with Bush's fairly narrow victory in Ohio in 2004 -- the state without which Bush would not have been re-elected. Because the Ohio vote was fairly close and because Blackwell was the state's chief elections officer, the nut-roots who absurdly claimed the Ohio ballot was rigged placed all the blame at Blackwell's feet. With Bush especially unpopular among black voters -- voters who in previous elections had provided Blackwell three or four times the percentages that Republicans normally receive from blacks -- Blackwell temporarily lost his longtime support in that key voting group.
One election loss in a terrible atmosphere cannot outweigh nearly three decades of winning electoral politics.
BUT THAT'S ALL in the past. What's impressive about Blackwell this year is how quickly he produced an absolutely superb "Conservative Resurgence Plan" to remake the RNC. Read it for yourself. At first it comes across as just a gathering of important-but-predictable promises: Raise more money, use technology better, yada yada yada. But after a while you realize it's a whole lot more. Blackwell provides not just platitudes but details. And they all make sense.
He lays out a plan to meld good, old-fashioned precinct politics -- including neighbor-to-neighbor, door-to-door (not just by phone) work, the way we all once did it when the organization charts were kept on paper hanging from easels -- with every last bit of modern technology, which Blackwell's plan cites by name and with obvious familiarity.
He focuses on the importance of governorships and state legislatures for the crucial redistricting battles coming after the 2010 census -- an issue he knows well because he served three years as chairman of the official national Census Monitoring Board.
He pledges a revenue-sharing system, along with all sorts of other help, for state Republican parties. And he spends a great deal of space explaining why it is so important to appeal to young voters and to re-build the ties between the RNC and the national College Republicans -- historically the proving grounds for so many party leaders. Indeed, the four top current national officials of the CRs have all endorsed Blackwell, as have the CR chairmen in 13 states.
Blackwell also plans greater consultation (within federal law) with outside conservative groups. And, finally but of utmost importance (this is a pet issue of mine!), Blackwell quite rightly insists that the RNC should make greater efforts at candidate recruitment.
"We must no longer relinquish control of federal candidate identification solely to the NRSC and NRCC," he writes. The problem with the senatorial committee and the congressional committee are that both are mostly incumbent protection bodies rather than candidate development bodies -- with the added weakness that they often do a bad job of actually protecting Republican incumbents! And no wonder: Every two years, a new senator or representative takes the helm of the two committees, and tries to oversee them while also handling full congressional duties and worrying about their own re-elections as well.
The Republican National Committee chairman darn well ought not leave candidate recruitment to such weak reeds.
"The most important factor in evaluating a potential Republican candidate is whether he/she has integrity and agrees with our philosophy of limited government, traditional values and a strong defense," Blackwell's plan continues. "If someone doesn't agree with the Republican philosophy of government, it hardly matters whether or not they make a good candidate on other levels. Once we are assured that they agree with our party philosophically, we should evaluate important factors such as their ability to appeal to voters for the office for which they are running, their ability to raise the resources necessary to be competitive, their ability to represent our party admirably on the national stage, and importantly, whether they are free from the corruption that plagued our party in recent years."
Several other strong candidates also are running for RNC Chairman. But it's easy to see why Blackwell has become one of the front-runners -- and the clear favorite among movement conservatives who form the backbone, nerves and sinews of today's Republican Party.