March 24, 2008

And I thought Republican committees at the federal level were in trouble.

At a time when the GOP presidential nominee will need more assistance than ever, a number of state Republican parties are struggling through troubled times, suffering from internal strife, poor fundraising, onerous debt, scandal or voting trends that are conspiring to relegate the local branches of the party to near-irrelevance.

In some of the largest, smallest, reddest and bluest states in the nation, many state Republican organizations are still reeling in the aftermath of the devastating 2006 election cycle, raising questions about how much grassroots help the state parties will be able to deliver to presumptive GOP nominee John McCain.

The state party woes are especially ill-timed since McCain will face a Democratic nominee who may be considerably better funded and organized, and since Republicans will be facing an energized Democratic party that is shattering primary election turnout records.

Saul Anuzis, chairman of the Michigan Republican Party was surprisingly candid about the state of affairs for state affiliates: “After 12 years of being in power, you tend to get fat and lazy, and in some cases arrogant with respect to your positions. There is no doubt that we have had people who have gotten caught up in both illegal activities and immoral activities and none of that helps the party as a whole. If you go back to 2006 most people would agree that not only did we lose our brand, that we damaged our brand significantly. We are clearly rebuilding.”

Of course, “rebuilding” in the midst of a competitive presidential campaign is a little tricky.

Some of the more dramatic problems for the party are occurring in huge states such as California and New York — where state GOP committees seem to have all but run out of money — but realistically, both are considered “blue” states.

Consider, though, the trouble facing state parties in some more competitive states.

In New Hampshire, where the state GOP has been driven by a dispute between moderates and conservatives, the state Democratic party took in four times as much money as its Republican counterpart in 2007. At the end of the most recent reporting period in February, the state GOP reported just $64,000 cash on hand to the Democrats’ $159,000.

In Arkansas, where Republicans lost the governorship in 2006 and are outnumbered in the state House and Senate by 3-1 margins, state GOP Chairman Dennis Milligan said he is facing defections and malaise.

“Independent conservative individuals just said they were fed up and they said there is no difference [between the two parties],” Milligan said. “We have sent out the message that we are now different. We know it did not fall down in one day and it won’t be rebuilt in one day.”

And in a handful of reliably “red” states, matters aren’t much better.

Even in some of the reddest states in the nation, Republicans have faced dispiriting news. As if Democratic Gov. Kathleen Sebelius’ easy 2006 re-election victory wasn’t insult enough in heavily Republican Kansas, she won with a running mate who was more than a little familiar to the state GOP — Mark Parkinson, the former state Republican chairman, who switched parties to run as her lieutenant governor.

Just four years earlier, Parkinson had exclaimed that “any Republican who supports Kathleen Sebelius for governor is either insincere or uninformed.” Sebelius is now frequently mentioned as a prospective vice presidential nominee.

Most recently it was the Alaska Republican party airing its dirty laundry. Just over a week ago, at the state Republican convention, the lieutenant governor shocked his party colleagues by announcing a primary challenge to veteran Congressman Don Young, who is under federal investigation. The state’s senior senator, Republican Ted Stevens, is also under federal investigation.

At the same event, GOP Gov. Sarah Palin, who is at odds with the state party, called for changes in leadership in the wake of a series of scandals that have tainted the party. An attempt to oust GOP Chairman Randy Ruedrich fell just short.

There’s time for the state parties to get back on track, and it’s not altogether clear how much the McCain campaign plans to rely on state GOP affiliates for support anyway.

But all things being equal, this isn’t how the Republican Party wanted to enter the ‘08 cycle.

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