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Party Crashers

Two candidates hope to unseat Republican Party of Texas chair Cathie Adams at next month's state convention in Dallas. The biggest issue isn't their ideological differences — there are none. It's the effectiveness of the party in organizing voter support, and, to a lesser degree, how willing the GOP should be to reach across the aisle and seek common ground.

Cathie Adams, Tom Mechler, and Steve Munisteri

The contest for control of the Republican Party of Texas has attracted three candidates, including current chair Cathie Adams. But this much is clear: Nobody’s conservative bonafides are at issue.

The race for state GOP chair is conducted largely out of the public eye, through phone calls and at meetings of party elders, and involves wooing some 14,000 delegates across Texas. With redistricting on the horizon and a governor’s race in November, the Republican faithful will gather in June in Dallas at their state convention to select who will lead the party out of debt and confront the growing specter of left-trending demographics. At stake is the party’s future base of support with donors and the electorate alike: The chair’s chief responsibility is to develop the tools that will get its candidates in office. A successful chair must strike a delicate balance — in the party line, if not personal ideology — that appeases the GOP’s conservative base without alienating its more moderate elements.

Adams, who previously served as the president of the Texas chapter of Phyllis Schlafly’s Eagle Forum, has presided over the party since October. Her predecessor, Tina Benkiser, left the position she’d held since 2003 to join Gov. Rick Perry’s campaign, prompting a special meeting of the State Republican Executive Committee to choose her replacement. Adams' short tenure illustrates the difficulty a chair can face in shifting from the role of an activist to that of the party’s chief harmonizer. Shortly after she took over, Adams attracted criticism within the party for breaking the post’s tradition of neutrality with an awkwardly timed endorsement of Justice Eva Guzman in her Republican primary against Rose Vela. At the time, Adams said she had given the nod to Guzman before she became chair, though news of her support didn’t come out until after she was chosen.

Now Adams is running for the job, and she has two opponents: Tom Mechler, a former Gray County Republican Party chairman and current vice chair of the Texas Board of Criminal Justice, and Steve Munisteri, a retired Houston lawyer and businessman.

All of the candidates agree that there’s not much ideological distance between them on fundamental issues like abortion, gay marriage and market regulation. Fiscal responsibility, something near and dear to the GOP’s heart, pops up as a topic of conversation because the state party is currently saddled with about $550,000 in debt left over from the Benkiser era, a condition unbecoming a party promoting fiscal restraint. Since Adams took the reins, the party is about $75,000 less in the red, according to the 2009 year-end report from the Federal Election Commission. “I am very pleased that we have a ship that was taking on water when I came on to the job on Oct. 24 and today we have a ship that is in shape,” she says. Mechler and Munisteri both emphasize their financial wherewithal in interviews — the former is an entreprenuer and Wharton Business School graduate, and the latter is a longtime small-business owner.

What does emerge as a flashpoint is the Republican Party’s effectiveness in organizing voter support across the state. Mechler criticizes its past ability to cooperate with other influential Republican electoral powerhouses, such as GOPAC and the Associated Republicans of Texas. He believes the party should be “a place where the different groups within the Republican team come together and build off each other's strengths.” Historically, he says, the struggle has been that many individuals and groups have not been comfortable working with state party leadership.

“A strong chairman is not intimidated by strong forces within the party,” Mechler says. “I have been building those bridges and building those relationships for the past 18 months. If I become chairman, we will immediately shift into cooperation.” Part of that, he says, will be to move the party into “a grassroots, bottom-up organization” that depends on the effectiveness of GOP county chairmen and volunteers.

Munisteri, who started his political career in 1972 as a block walker for Hank Grover and John Tower, also said he was running because he was concerned with the state party’s infrastructure and its finances. “There are no field men in the field, there are no field offices, and there is no statewide organization that can turn out, say, a statewide block walk. There’s not even an organizational director that I know of on the staff,” he says. “The model we should look at is how effective the Democrats are,” citing their efforts to increase voter turnout during early voting periods. 

The Republicans, in contrast, use a method Munisteri describes as “antiquated” — a 72-hour voter turnout program, in which Republicans identify their votes and mount telephone campaigns to get them to the polls three days prior to their close. According to Munisteri, the 72-hour program “is basically the same technology and same technique I saw in 1980 when I worked as state chair for Young Texans for Reagan.”

Party messaging, arguably the most important responsibility of a chairman, also concerns Munisteri, who brought up the rising number of Democrats in the state. "The question is, how do you get people who are not Republicans to vote for you?” he asked, recommending seeking common ground on issues with voters outside the party. “What you don't do is go find the two issues that are not compatible with them and get into a fight with them about it.”

Adams says she doesn’t believe devotion to the GOP is endangered in Texas. She cites high voter turnout in the March Republican primary as evidence: “It’s very, very clear with the huge numbers that came out … that Republicans are united, shown not only in the support for our governor but also in opposition to the Obama administration's liberal agenda.”

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