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RealClearPolitics HorseRaceBlog

By Jay Cost

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The Limits of the RNC

Lots of conservatives paid close attention to the recent chairmanship election at the RNC, using it as a proxy for the future direction of the party.

I did not.

I've made a careful study of the scholarly literature on the national committees, and I am left generally unimpressed by them. The scholarly consensus is that the national committees are little more than "service" organizations that work to transfer money from the national party to gubernatorial and presidential campaigns (as well as helping the state party's meet their bottom lines) - but they exercise little-to-no political power.

Chris Cillizza reports today on one good reason why they exercise no power.

One week after Michael Steele won a hotly contested race to be the chairman of the Republican National Committee, he has cleaned house and laid off almost the entire RNC staff.

Steele met with the full staff on Tuesday and word of the mass layoffs came shortly after that. According to sources familiar with the move, all of the communications and political staffers are being let go.

Some senior staff members -- in expectation of being let go -- submitted their resignations shortly after Steele won the chairmanship last Friday. Others have already found new jobs, most notably RNC political director Rich Beeson who will return to his post at FLS Direct, and Amber Wilkerson who will serve as national spokeswoman at the National Republican Senatorial Committee.

Such an overhaul is not entirely unprecedented particularly given that Steele ousted incumbent RNC Chairman Mike Duncan from the job in the vote last week and his entire message during that campaign was built around the idea that change was needed after the disastrous GOP showing in the 2008 election.

This is one reason why I wouldn't put too much stock in the RNC being part of any Republican reformation. What effect can an organization have if its staff is cleaned out at least once every four years? Because remember, that'll be exactly what happens should the GOP win the presidency in 2012. The nominee-turned-President will "capture" the organization, just as President Obama has captured the DNC, and staff it with his people. If the nominee loses, expect another incumbent-ousting election at the RNC, and thus another round of house cleaning.

High staff turnover like this means an absence of institutional memory, and thus one reason among many to see the national committees as being little more than in service to candidates. Principally, what these outfits do is "fly the flag" of the party, attracting donations from far-and-wide that are then sent to gubernatorial and presidential candidates (either through direct contributions, transfers to state parties, or spent on their behalf via "independent" expenditures). But they have never been an integral part of the rebranding of a political party. Ultimately, that's going to be left up to the candidates running for office. Through their collective actions, they will set the tone for the future.

The national committees have never wielded any significant political power. This is easy to overlook because we see the national committees being in some way connected to the national party identity - and of course they exploit this in their fundraising. But the fact remains that their job is relatively narrow. Their role is basically just to by-pass the more onerous limitations of the Federal Elections Campaign Act and the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act (aka McCain-Feingold): they collect the cash and distribute it to candidates who need it but who face various legal limitations. I've said it several times on this site: legal money laundering and little else. This is why the title of an old scholarly work on them still holds true today: the national committees are politics without power.

From this perspective, perhaps Mike Duncan's defeat was somewhat unfair. After all, the RNC had a good fundraising cycle, especially considering President Bush's lousy job approval numbers.

-Jay Cost