Ron Nehring

Measuring a Party Chairman’s Success in the 2014 Cycle

 

State Republican committees across the country are electing new leaders and Republicans are looking for those who will lead the party to victory in 2014.

It’s helpful for interested Republicans to understand just what a party Chairman can control and influence so that expectations can be realistic and two years from now people can accurately  judge whether the new Chairman has been successful.

Put another way, if you’re going to measure success, you need the right ruler.

There are many ways to judge a Chairman’s tenure, and most of the popular metrics are absolutely wrong.

A party chairman, like any other leader, can be held accountable only for performance in those areas under the chairman’s control.  It’s neither fair nor accurate to gauge a chairman’s success by developments – good or bad – that he cannot directly influence.

The most common erroneous measurement of a party chairman’s success is whether he “won elections.”  It’s a common mistake based on an assumption that a party chairman controls far more than he really does.

Elections are influenced by a large number of factors, most of which are completely outside of the control of party officials.  Republicans lost sure-fire Senate races in Missouri and Indiana in 2012, yet those losses didn’t mean the party chairmen in those states were not capable.  In fact, both parties have good leaders, but a strong party organization cannot fully mitigate the damage done by Todd Akin discussing “legitimate rape” and Richard Murdock’s contention that if a woman becomes pregnant as a result of a rape, “it’s God’s will.”

Republicans scored big wins across the country in 1994 and 2010, and big losses in 2006 and 2008.  Were state party chairmen in ’94 and ’10 brilliant while those in ’06 and ’08 not so bright?  Of course not.

The truth is that chairmen do not hand-pick candidates, they do not control even a single candidate’s messaging, nor the allocation of a campaign’s resources.  Does anyone believe Senator McCain in2008 called RNC Chairman Mike Duncan to ask how he should run his campaign? Not a chance.  In fact, the opposite is true.  Once Senator McCain won the delegates necessary to secure the nomination, he and the RNC Chairman staged a meeting where Chairman Duncan, in effect, turned the keys to the building over to Senator McCain.  In America, we operate in a candidate-centric system where if it’s your name on the ballot, you get to call the shots.

Whether election wins or losses take place on a particular chairman’s “watch” is not a fair gauge of his leadership because factors external to the party determine the outcome in all but the closest races.

If wins and losses are not a fair measurement, then how can we fairly evaluate a chairman’s success or failure?

In my ten years of experience as a party chairman, I have seen four key areas in which a party chairman with traditional chairman’s authority can be gauged.

1.  Financial condition.  The chairman controls the party’s staff and has control over most expenditures.  The chairman is responsible for ensuring fundraising programs are designed and implemented, and that at the end of the day the party can meet its financial obligations.  If in December 2014 the state party is well in the black, the new chairman will have been a success in this area.

2.  Personnel.  Is the party staffed by competent professionals who are skilled, ethical, and set a good example?  Or is the party’s headquarters populated by a bunch of hacks?  The executive director answers to the chairman and has authority over all staffing decisions.  If in December 2014 the state party staff is first class and held in high regard, the new chairman scored a victory.

3.  Programs.  A political party is a campaign organization.  To this end, success in winning elections is properly gauged by whether the party executed programs that brought victory closer to our candidates.  If large numbers of Republican voters were registered, turned out, and informed of their endorsed Republican candidates, then the chairman can rightly claim success.

4.  What is left behind?  The party chairman is neither a dictator nor an owner.  He only has temporary custody of an institution with a history that strateches back more than 150 years.  To that end, a Chairman at the conclusion of his term should leave behind a party that works and is in better condition than when he assumed the office.  Finances, equipment, headquarters, data, donor groups, and volunteer groups are the key assets for the next cycle.

Also: what kind of culture has been created?  Is the state party environment a positive one where those who work hard are recognized, which in turn encourages more people to contribute?  Are skilled people who want to be a part of the team welcomed, or are they shut out for petty reasons?  Do people feel the state party is a good and worthwhile place to direct energy, or a snake pit of intrigue?  The culture of a campaign organization matters, and leadership sets the tone throughout any party organization or campaign.  [Read: Five Steps to Creating a Winning Republican Culture.]

Casual observers may conclude that these four areas are rudimentary or easy.  They are definitely not.  In each the chairman will face direct challenges.  Candidates will be competing for donor support.  Fundraising programs must retooled in a short period of time.  Some new hires may not work out.  Statewide nominees may have consultants who are not on the same page.  The list goes on and on.

Karl Rove tells a story of one of his mentors who advised him, “your ability to succeed in politics depends directly on your ability to say ‘no.’”  This is especially true of the office of party chairman.  All the big players start off on the same page, but quickly differences emerge due to varying priorities and relationships, and elected officials and other stakeholders start making demands, and if all of them are agreed to, the party will find itself upside down again.  For example, legislative leaders naturally want to see resources focused on competitive legislative districts, while statewide candidates need a different approach.  The Chairman must have the ability to say “no” to powerful interests within the party when that is required to ensure the institution’s financial health.

Putting the party first by saying “no” to powerful people doesn’t make them happy, which is one of the reasons the holder of the office needs to have a thick skin.  If you want to be popular with elected officials, a better strategy is to be successful in business, make money, and be a donor.  The chairman’s job is not for people desperate for adoration.  It’s for people of courage and determination.

Ron Nehring served as Chairman of the California Republican Party from 2007 to 2011, and Chairman of the Republican Party of San Diego County from 2001 to 2007.  Today he serves as the Vice Chairman in San Diego.  He publishes a new strategy and political technology blog at RonNehringLabs.com