Rebuilding the GOP: The Committeeman Project

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I firmly believe today that former Ohio Secretary of State Ken Blackwell’s Conservative Resurgence Plan was the best thing to come out of the race for the RNC Chairmanship earlier this year. With its focus on precinct-level organization, it not only provided the best blueprint for rebuilding the Party in locales where it has completely collapsed but also the often neglected aspect of strengthening it where it’s strong so the GOP can be competitive again in every part of the nation. Blackwell promised that, as RNC Chairman, he would spend unprecedented amounts of money and resources to rebuild the Republican Party’s organizational and campaign infrastructure from the most local of levels (i.e. the precinct) on up. The logic of it was simple;

If we are organized at the precinct level, our organizations at [every] other [level] will be [that] much more efficient and productive.

To be specific, the Conservative Resurgence Plan called for the recruitment of a “new generation of precinct leaders” who would be the GOP’s first line of command on the field, interconnected online and operating neighborhood by neighborhood, recruiting volunteers, canvassing and talking to voters, explaining the GOP’s stand on the issues, organizing events, etc. In addition, these “Precinct Organizers” and their lieutenants would have access to a specially developed set of online party-building database, multimedia, voter mapping, fundraising, volunteer management and task tracking applications to enable them inform, plan, coordinate and direct their on-ground activities and resources in their areas of responsibility in and out of campaign season.

The Republican Party must be a civic institution again, with a volunteer base that is active year-round and is given real responsibility beyond showing up at a phone bank. In this last election, it should have been possible for volunteer leaders to organize their precinct or neighborhood for McCain, tasking them with knocking on doors, distributing signs, and most crucially, recruiting other volunteers to build the party exponentially. Instead, virtually all volunteer activity was channeled towards driving casual phone contacts, not personal neighbor-to-neighbor door knocks.

Our technology should give Republican activists the ability to connect with fellow activists at the precinct level. We must encourage the growth of standalone volunteer communities, giving them the tools to organize themselves online, with the official party taking a step back and not trying to control them.

Unfortunately, Ken Blackwell’s campaign never gained any traction within the cliquish environment of the 168 members of the Republican National Committee. I was hoping that when he withdrew his name from the ballot and endorsed Michael Steele, it was a sign that even though his candidacy was dead, his Plan was going to see some semblance of life in Michael Steele’s RNC.

I’m not quite so hopeful anymore.

But then, recently, I started thinking; why wait for the RNC? What, exactly, is preventing Blackwell from seeing his precinct rebuilding Plan through? Does one really need to be Chairman of the RNC to get something like this done? In fact, considering the recent depressing displays of fecklessness, blindness and incompetence (i.e. NY20, Specter) from the official GOP establishment and its various arms, perhaps Blackwell not having to balance the interests of the rank-and-file against the narrow interests and warped conventional wisdom of Beltway Republicans, which (he would have had to as RNC Chairman) is a blessing in disguise.

With this, let me (re-)introduce an idea I only just touched on a few weeks ago; The Committeeman Project.

A Precinct Committeeman (AKA “Precinct Delegate” (MI), “Precinct Executive” (OH), etc.) is the party officer usually elected by party members in a precinct to be the party’s representative at the precinct level – it is the lowest rung of the ladder in both the major parties’ official leadership hierarchy. A Precinct Committeeman is supposed to help the party canvass how voters in his/her precinct perceive the issues/candidates, recruit campaign volunteers for GOTV and other activities, organize literature drops, promote party events and generally find where the votes are and encourage them to show up at the polls. In a number of states, Precinct Committeemen (e.g. IL) are automatically deputized as voter registrars and also as poll watchers.

Revitalizing the GOP’s precinct-level organization and bringing it into the 21st Century world of Web 2.0, social networking and multimedia are the principal aims of The Committeeman Project – essentially the Blackwell Plan as applied specifically to the need to ensure that every single precinct in the United States has a Republican Precinct Committeeman armed with modern web-based and/or stand-alone party-building tools at his/her fingertips and serving as a key nodal point in what it is hoped will grow into one massive constantly on and self-organizing e-community.

The Committeeman Project has two parts;

  1. Recruitment: Some questions need to be answered first.
    How many precincts/county/state? e.g. PA|Knox County (451).
    How many precincts have currently serving precinct committeemen? Which ones are vacant?
    How does one set about becoming a precinct committeeman in a particular county/district?
    … etc.
  2. Applications Development: I must first of all note that Ron Robinson and his GOPguerrillas Ning group are doing yeoman’s work in getting a GOP activist ActionCenter up and running in time for 2010. My thinking is exactly along those lines. As mentioned above, the endpoint of the Committeeman Project is to have every single one of the GOP’s Committeemen, their network of volunteers and activists interconnected at the precinct, township, county, up to the state and national level. To that effect, all Precinct Committeemen would be expected to run websites loaded with locale-conscious (i.e. using ZIP code) “GOPgets” for canvassing, volunteer recruiting, GOTV, events organization, multimedia, etc. For example;
    • Events Calendar
    • Multimedia (i.e. YouTube, LiveLeak) Channels
    • My Representatives
    • Candidates/Issues
    • Donate/Contribute
    • Volunteer
    • … etc.

From the (admittedly anecdotal) information I’ve gathered in the course of writing this, only about 40% to 50% (80-100,000) of Republican precinct committeeman seats are filled at any one time. Considering that there are 203,000 precincts spread across all the 3141 counties and the 57 50 states (and Territories) it means that up to 60% of the nation’s precincts have no official Republican point of presence. This is something that needs to be rectified.

But why, one might ask, the focus on lowly bottom of the totem pole Precinct Committeemen?

First of all, it should be noted that its not just Committeemen The Committeeman Project is out to recruit and equip. Similar party building tools (i.e. taskbars, modules, plugins, “widGOPgets“) will also be developed for neighborhood activists, volunteers, friendly bloggers, students, etc. all interconnected on a (hopefully) location-by-location basis with the Committeeman network and the rest of the Republican Party online – all of which, it should be noted, from the state party websites for the 50 states to the 3141 county websites, may need to be tweaked somewhat in light of foregoing events.

And second? Well … because the Precinct Committeeman is the “most powerful office in the world.

Of course, that’s overstating matters a bit … but not entirely. Precinct Committeemen constitute the membership of their party’s County/Township Central Committees, from among whom they elect the members of the party’s County/Township Executive Committees (in most cases including the Chairmen and other leadership positions). In some locales (e.g. Arizona?), serving as a Precinct Committeeman is an eligibility prerequisite for any higher party office. The key thing though, is this; these local party Committees (whether Central, Executive or both) can and regularly do issue Primary endorsements – and this gets recorded on the sample ballot/voter guide the primary voter carries into the booth. And more than 90% of the time, because he/she gets the endorsing tick mark on the sample ballot, the endorsee wins.

Which means that, at the level where it most matters, these “lowly” bottom-rung party-men control who gets to appear on the November General Election ballot with the ‘R’ (or ‘D’) behind his name. What this means is that while millions of men and women voted in the 2008 Republican Presidential primaries that resulted in John McCain emerging as the GOP’s standard bearer, it was first decided in plain sight but under the radar by a nationwide group of only about 80,000-100,000 men and women. And that’s just the Presidency one office out of the approximately 513,000 public/elected offices in the United States, from the 50 Governors, members of Congress and the State Legislatures, on down to city/town mayors, county sheriffs and members of the local school board.

Another impressive thing about the Blackwell Plan was the very non-Beltway like recognition that if the party is to ever find its way back to the Majority, it needs to regain the confidence of the party rank and file. In fact, of the five elements it identified as necessary for a “resurgence”, the first it listed is an “Inspired Base.” Which sort of answers the question as to why John McCain didn’t have armies of volunteers cascading through the precincts and knocking on doors on his behalf. Were it not for the woman he picked to be his Vice-President, he would have approached Election Day broke, still unable to fill a hotel conference room and on his way to a humiliating 40+ state rout. So if anything, 2008 should lay to rest the notion that one can ignore the base in favor of appealing to some nebulous “bipartisan”/”Independent” subset of the electorate; on the contrary, 2008 (and 2006) emphatically brought it home that one must thread the needle of appealing to both one’s party base and swing voters at the same time.

Regaining the confidence of the Republican base starts first of all by getting the right names on the general election ballot – we cannot continue to defer to the same shortsighted consultant-based calculationism and Beltway conventional wisdom that has brought the Republican Party to its current state. It’s the same mindset that saw the GOP waste valuable resources (not to mention its credibility) in support of Arlen Specter against Pat Toomey in 2004 and propose to do the same again in 2010 until Specter himself made it a moot point, the same mindset that turned out Democrats to vote in the Republican Primary in support of Lincoln Chafee over Steve Laffey in 2006.

As Scott Rasmussen has recently observed, there now exists a very large, very dangerous disconnect between the establishment Republicans (especially those in DC) and the GOP rank and file. This actually stands on its head Ronald Reagan’s morale-boosting observation in his famous “bold colors” speech at CPAC in 1975 – back then, polls at both parties’ most recent national convention revealed that elected Republicans and Republicans in the rank and file were mostly on the same page on all the major issues, unlike the Democrats. Reagan cited this as a sign of better times to come even after the carnage of 1974 … and as it turned out, he was right.

No such similar situation exists today, and as Rasmussen starkly put it;

To be relevant in politics, you need either formal power or a lot of people willing to follow your lead. The governing Republicans in the nation’s capital have lost both on their continuing path to irrelevance.

In hindsight, the most politically profound thing that happened in the aftermath of 2004 was the election of base-favorite Howard “I hate Republicans and everything Republicans stand for!” Dean to head up the DNC. It wasn’t so much that it was a good choice (and no one thought so at the time), but what it signified; that the Democratic establishment in DC had been forcefully brought to heel by its activist rank and file. It was no longer a top-down relationship. As Eli Pariser(?) of MoveOn crowed; “We bought it, we own it.” To prove it further, four years later, the rank and file wanted Barack Obama for President, the establishment wanted Hillary Clinton; and now the establishment’s choice serves at the pleasure of the other. In comparison, when loyal Republicans complained of open primaries in liberal states giving us a Presidential candidate who actually took pride in how often (and for no valid explainable reason) he’d stuck his finger into the collective eyes of the very same people he would need to carry him over the finish line, we were essentially told to “shut up and get in line!

The Committeeman Project is designed to force a similar and long overdue re-alignment of the Republican elected class away from the liberal Beltway and state capitol punditocracy and back to the people who elected them. I would imagine that knowing that there are people, organized 24/7, who can make sure you don’t even make it to the starting gate watching you, communicating with each other (and the voters in your district), would do wonders for improving one’s ability to remember promises and listen to one’s constituents.

Ken Blackwell

Of course, the Committeeman Project would only be successful only in so far as the people it recruits meet the same high standards they’ll be in charge of safeguarding in the GOP’s elected officials. To quote the Reagan era aphorism; personnel is policy and it always starts with the leadership. Fact; every serious project needs a project leader to ride herd and get things done. I don’t believe the Committeeman Project is any different, and in my opinion, the ideal person to head up the Committeeman Project would be Ken Blackwell, (currently Vice-Chairman of the RNC’s Platform Committee). Not only is he a bona fide grassroots conservative, he’s a proven leader with an admirable record of stepping on establishment toes even at a cost to his own political future, and actually a phenomenally strong fundraiser – which is always a useful skill. But even more than that, the Committeeman Project is actually his idea – basically no different from what he had planned to do as Chairman of the RNC.

Adam Graham over at PJM put it well;

Because of the Republican Party’s lack of interest in the ideas that brought passion and energy to the party’s base, many activists began to step away, give less money, not volunteer, and stay home on election day … The greatest danger to a GOP resurgence is not those folks who are motivated to political actions by their beliefs, but rather the way-too-powerful [go along to get along] good old boys who stalk the halls of Congress and statehouses across America.

The only way back to a lasting effective Majority is for the GOP elected class to listen to its base, take heed and return to its principles in the corridors of power in DC, the state capitals and city hall. And the best way to ensure that happens is to make the threat of losing office and being replaced by an angry rank and file real.

The second thing is that, like it or not, the Obama Campaign, much like the McKinley campaign in 1896, broke new ground in 2008. From here on in, a technologically interconnected and grassroots-powered campaign infrastructure is going to be increasingly a staple part of all future successful political campaigns beyond the most local of levels. And the fact is that we cannot hope to compete against the Democrats in this new environment with a dispirited base constantly forced to choose between the lesser of two evils.

I think the Committeeman Project, at very least, begins to address these issues in empowering the Party rank and file over the elected class, and providing the beginning of the needed infrastructure to bring about a GOP resurgence sooner rather than later.

As usual, all criticisms, additions, corrections, etc. welcome.