Skip to main content

5 keys to filling Michael Steele's job as RNC chairman

By Liz Mair, Special to CNN
  • Republican National Committee chairman election will be held in January
  • Liz Mair says RNC needs to be managed like Fortune 500 company
  • No presidential contender wants an RNC chairman who is hostile to their interests, she writes
  • Mair: RNC chairman should coordinate messages with GOP team and not seek limelight

Editor's note: Liz Mair is vice president of Hynes Communications, a former adviser to Carly Fiorina and the former online communications director of the Republican National Committee. She lives in Arlington, Virginia.

(CNN) -- In less than two months, members of the Republican National Committee will convene at National Harbor, just outside Washington, and select a chairman to lead the organization over the next two years.

With the midterm elections over, the race is already generating a phenomenal amount of chatter. That includes a former staffer and potential rival's criticism of the incumbent, Michael Steele.

But often lost in all this discussion is a focus on what really matters -- the personal and professional qualifications a prospective chairman must have to do the job effectively. Speculation abounds as to whether Steele will run for re-election; to date, however, he has not announced his intention to do so.

Here are the factors the group casually referred to as "the 168" will be weighing as they make their decision.

1. Fundraising chops

Simply put, the RNC's financial requirements are so vast -- and weak fundraising has proved to have such negative effects on the RNC's ability to carry out its operations -- that committee members will treat solid fundraising chops as a litmus test applicable to all candidates for the job of chairman.

Michael Steele: 'I ain't going anywhere'
DNC chairman: Steele will survive

Someone capable of raising $200 million in a cycle will not pass muster; the RNC needs to be able to raise closer to twice that (or more) in a presidential cycle, with much of that sum flowing from day one as a direct result of person-to-person outreach by the chairman himself.

Online fundraising is great, and should be a priority, but without a solid fundraiser-in-chief, the RNC can be little more than a bit player on the sidelines -- and that won't cut it in 2012 when the presidency as well as control of Congress is on the table.

2. Fortune 500-quality management skills

At its best, the RNC is a powerhouse organization capable of influencing what happens at the highest levels in this country to an equal or greater degree to any Fortune 500 company.

It needs to be run by someone with the best possible management skills who is able to handle money and large budgets consistently well. It needs someone who can seek out and hire not merely competent individuals, but exceptional ones. The chairman needs to be able to lure them away from companies such as Microsoft or Yahoo to do jobs that are more stressful, more time consuming, less enjoyable and far less financially lucrative.

It is not enough to keep the trains running on time. A good chairman does it cost-effectively, after having hired high-level staff who have endurance, creativity and instincts roughly equivalent to those of Lance Armstrong, David Bowie and Predator combined. Management skills are key for this leadership role.

3. Neutrality

Heading into a presidential cycle, there is one thing no potential presidential contender wants: an RNC chairman who is actually, or perceived to be, hostile to his or her interests.

By definition, that means that committee members, each of whom has a personal preference or expects to at some stage, want a chairman who is and will honestly remain neutral until a nominee has been selected.

If a candidate is already in the tank for Candidate X, expect that to count against him when the 168 are weighing their options. If she is pledging neutrality but previously worked for one of the contenders, or pledged her support for him or her, this will also be true.

4. Duct tape

Proverbially speaking, the primary job of an RNC chairman is not to talk. More often than not, it is to shut up, let others do the talking (and listen when they do) and coordinate the message with other members of the Republican team.

This important for ensuring that committee members do not come to feel resentful of a chairman who has morphed from being a pretty big deal into a gigantic head threatening to eclipse everything in a constant quest for the next TV camera or microphone. It is also important for ensuring that the chairman complements the work being undertaken by Republican congressional leaders -- specifically incoming Speaker John Boehner -- and others, as opposed to stepping on toes and generating discord and confusion.

Furthermore, the chairman remaining less seen and heard will help both the future presidential nominee and up-and-coming bright stars get what they need to raise their profile and grow the party.

No offense to any of the current or prospective contenders, but right now and for the foreseeable future, Boehner needs to be the primary face of Republican leadership when it comes to legislation and policy. And when it comes to the broader political debate, it's a good bet that as it stands, most Republican donors, activists and voters would prefer to see Marco Rubio on their TV screens than the money-and-management guy (or girl).

5. Club membership

During his unsuccessful run for chairman in 2009, Ken Blackwell commented that were he put in charge, the RNC would no longer be "a social club," a remark much criticized for arguably insulting the 168, of which Blackwell was not a member.

But the reality is that the RNC, constituted for extremely serious purposes that extend well beyond meeting for some drinks and chit-chat with friends, is something of a club. And it's one that is hard to run if you are not yourself a member. This is one of the less frequently heard but important criticisms of Steele.

Certainly, there are many Republicans and actual committee members who would agree that demonstrated strength in fundraising and solid management skills are more important aspects of a prospective chairman's resume than club membership and that a club member ought not to be automatically preferred to an outsider with these qualities. However, the bottom line is that a chairman who comes from the ranks of the RNC or who has been embedded with the 168 for so long that that is effectively the case is likely to work better with club members than an outsider.

Other factors may, of course, matter to individual committee members casting a vote.

Some will prefer a candidate who avidly uses an iPad. Some will prefer a candidate who presents extremely well on TV for those occasions when on-camera work is desirable. Some will prefer a rock-ribbed conservative over a squishy moderate.

But all, or virtually all, will measure candidates against the above criteria before casting a vote. Mark off the second week of January on your calendar to see who will take home the big prize.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Liz Mair.