ON THE PHONE, Saul Anuzis doesn't stutter. That's fitting for the former telecom executive and current Michigan state GOP chairman who's running for Republican National Committee Chairman. After all, he's been the first to actually announce his intention to run.
Anuzis is also the first to announce his candidacy using web platforms -- speaking to Republicans via YouTube, changing his status message on the social networking site Facebook, and sending a message via Twitter. [UPDATE: I neglected to mention his website, here.] The significance of such a move cannot be underestimated: At a time when Republicans are regrouping and looking for a path forward, there is a great deal of consensus that whatever the national party does, it has to make better use of the web. That doesn't mean putting up a nice website. It means creating a vast online social network of activists, who can then use web tools to organize meetings, raise money, or even announce their own candidacies.
When asked how he's used the Internet to get candidates elected, he cites the use of Facebook to organize rallies, that he has blogged almost daily during his time as chairman, and he has an email address list of over 100,000 emails. When pushed, he doesn't offer any names of candidates who benefitted from the effort. On the other hand, most other party chairs don't come near even this kind of engagement with the Internet.
Anuzis knows that the technology gap isn't the only area where the RNC needs reform. "I think we need to be more inclusive of the chairmen from each state party. Those members serve on the national committee but most of the time it works like a politburo. It's not a working meeting." That's what happens when the party has a president in office. Decisions are made top down, rather than from the ground up. Anuzis wants to change that.
He also wants to implement a "40 under 40" plan. Recruiting and grooming candidates for office helps renew the image of the party, he says, so it's a priority to "get them the exposure that allows them to compete."
One area in which Republicans are likely to face Democratic challenges are on issues of transparency. As Democratic special interests begin to cash in on favors earned during campaign '08, Anuzis sees the best strategy in '10 and '12 as running against the typical Washington tendency toward hypocrisy. "We can't be duplicitous or hypocritical. That sort of thing has hurt us."
IT'S A HARD SELL. Just what can a state GOP chairman do in increasingly blue Michigan? This year alone saw two Republican districts go blue, one of which (the 7th) had been red for over ten years. Republican gubernatorial candidate Dick DeVos lost by 14 points to incumbent governor Jennifer Granholm. The Michigan state Senate has the lowest number of Republicans in years. Yet Granholm and Democratic incumbent Senator Stabenow were both vulnerable at a time when Michigan was in a single-state depression. In other words, in the time that Anuzis has been state party chair, there have been no actual major electoral accomplishments, and perhaps even blown opportunities.
Two thousand eight can be explained by two words: "Barack Obama." And despite being a firmly Democratic year, Michigan did in fact retain most of its Republican House members in Congress. And Democratic billionaire Jon Stryker gave enough money to help the Democrats outspend Republicans. But maintaining the status quo is hardly a recommendation for Anuzis, and explains why there are five candidates running to replace him who have campaign statements pinning the blame solidly on Saul.
Dan Tollis is running for Michigan state chair and announced his candidacy with a direct attack on Anuzis, his executive director, and the Michigan GOP's preferred vendor:
"With Anuzis, Timmer, and Sterling at the helm, we've been creamed at the top of the ticket, as well as losing the majority in the Michigan House of Representatives, two Congressmen, The Chief Justice of the Michigan Supreme Court, Republican majorities on several County Board of Commissioners, and several seats on the statewide education boards.… Corruption and infighting has withered the Michigan Republican Party into an ineffective organization, and because of this, I am announcing my candidacy for Michigan Republican Party Chairman."
Jerry Zandstra, who had previously attempted to run for Senate but couldn't get on the ballot, is also running for chairman:
"I am not sure what RNC Members would find attractive about the results of the Michigan Republican Party over the last 4 years.… It is easy for us to make comments about Gov. Granholm being in Washington elbowing for a seat in Barrack Obama's cabinet while her state is in an economic meltdown. But isn't our Chairman doing something similar?"
Zandstra's grievances aren't purely in terms of electoral success. While he's upset that the county map has gotten progressively bluer since 2002, he sees Anuzis as being more interested in "getting involved in party fights rather than trying to win elections." One such party fight was Zandstra's own Senate race, where every signature on his petition to run was challenged not by a Democrat, but by an attorney who was affiliated with the Republican Party. Zandstra suspected state party interference, and felt that Anuzis favored Mike Bouchard, one of the two other competitors for the Republican nomination. Anuzis has denied the allegation about favoring Bouchard, and has stated he knows nothing about the signature challenges. Bouchard got the nomination, but lost in the general.
Anuzis cites this and other controversies as pure mud drummed up to prevent his success. "There is a very small group of people that has not been on my side. I consistently get unanimous support from 12 out of 15 congressional districts. On the other three I have the leadership that may have a problem with me because they're part of a different crowd."
TAS interviewed a sampling of legislators within Michigan and few are as enthusiastic, particularly about taking on a national leadership role. "The scoreboard doesn't lie," said one. "If the Detroit Lions needed a new head coach, they wouldn’t go looking for a college coach with a losing record." Another described Anuzis as "a conventional wisdom guy." One legislator did praise him for being accessible, capable, and very intelligent, crediting him with at least maintaining the Republican majority within the State Senate.
The Michigan GOP chair himself might think he hasn't done so well. He was on record as recently as September saying that his top priority was getting a Republican governor elected in 2010. He was also planning to run for reelection in his current position. Either he thinks he's done so well that he's shifting his priorities, or, as Jerry Zandstra has suggested, he could be afraid he might lose.
MONEY HAS ALSO been a problem for the Michigan GOP. When McCain announced his pull-out from Michigan, the Detroit News reported that on October 15th the state GOP fund for assisting federal candidates was just $860,000. The Democratic Party had $3.5 million.
When asked about drawing on a line of credit in order to keep the lights on throughout an off year, Anuzis tells me that this is common practice among state parties. Yet speaking to another party chairman (who was not aware I was referring to Michigan) made it clear that while it's not unusual, it's typically a sign of financial distress, especially in an off-year. He noted that such financial problems are likely the consequence of holding on to campaign staff for too long.
Last April, the Michigan party's 14th Congressional District Chairman, Bill Beddoes, told the Detroit News that he was particularly concerned.
"Basically, we're close to a quarter of a million dollars in debt, and this should be a time we're raising money and not spending it," he said. The party spokesman responded that it was, after all, a bad economy. But Anuzis never mentioned the economy to me in the several times I asked him why it was necessary to take out so many loans. He did say that the loans were only taken out based on pledges from donors to donate. That would indicate a reliance on a few big donors, not on steadily mounting fundraising.
Jim Duistermars, a member of the state budget committee, said in the same article that the timing was strange. "It's not unusual for a campaign committee to take out loans," Duistermars said. "But it usually happens when you're ramping up to an election."
Anuzis points to the fact that he has an independent audit done every other year. "Since I have run the party, we have never been in debt. We've finished every election cycle without being in debt. We get transfers from Victory programs, and those are normal, they happen all the time."
MANY OF THE leading candidates for state GOP chair have also charged Anuzis with self-dealing. Anuzis hasn't helped the situation. His own telecom firm, QuickConnect, has received tens of thousands of state GOP dollars in an arrangement that started prior to Anuzis's election to state chair. The consulting shop that is paid hundreds of thousands of dollars by the Michigan GOP is also a former employer of Anuzis's executive director.
On the first charge, Anuzis refers to it as a "bulls---ty accusation." For one thing, he argues, he couldn't cancel the contract because it was a contract that he couldn't violate. But he is CEO of QuickConnect and chairman of the state GOP, and it is unclear under those conditions what repercussions there might have been. And despite the contract period ending, and moving on to a month to month arrangement, Anuzis maintained the relationship for several months. Anuzis now claims that QuickConnect is no longer a vendor for the state party. He explains he wasn't even aware of this: "I don't get involved in the day to day minutiae."
On the second charge, he indicates there are only two political consulting firms in Michigan who can do this kind of work, and that there's no conflict of interest.
HIS PLAN TO WIN the chairmanship position has attracted attention for being the first. And his plans certainly resonate with those frustrated by the Republican lag in grasping the real fundraising and coalition power of the web. But the 168 RNC members who will make their selections in January will be asking questions about Anuzis's experience in implementing such plans. If they start asking, however, they'll find quite a few critics happy to answer.
Joseph Lawler and Matthew Bishop contributed reporting to this article.