The unbearable smallness of the RNC chair battle

The contest to run the Republican National Committee has turned into a fight over which of the candidates are racist.

By Gabriel Winant

Published January 26, 2009 10:25PM (EST)

The race to run the Republican National Committee has gotten so nasty lately that you’d almost think the outcome really matters. Though a survey conducted by the Hotline showed incumbent Mike Duncan with the most pledged supporters, the contest still looks wide open, and the six candidates seem to be getting a little desperate to make their mark.

The most recent squall has to do with one of the contenders, South Carolina GOP head Katon Dawson. Dawson has a history that suggests he may not be particularly attuned to racial issues: He was, until recently, a member of an all-white country club, and in 2005, he made these comments about the role desegregation played in pushing him into public life:

Government reached into my life and grabbed me and shook me at the age of fifteen. I remember how blatant it was that government just thought that they knew better, that government just thought they knew better what to do in my school. And I can't say it was so much racial. I can say that people had a lot of stuff thrust on them because politicians thought they knew better.

Now an anonymous e-mail attacking Dawson has circulated among RNC members. The e-mail contains a parody of the front page of USA Today, which reports, “RNC Members Choose ‘White’s Only’ Chairman” (sic).

The Republicans are obviously sensitive about their support among African American voters, which has lately gone from merely very low to almost imperceptible. As I wrote last week, the contest seems, at times, to be coming down to an argument over who has the most black friends (candidates Michael Steele and Ken Blackwell, who are themselves black, included).

This is not a very pretty spectacle, and underlining all of it is a certain irony. The Republicans are pretty far gone from reality if they think they can really flip black voters solely based on their choice for what is, ultimately, a relatively obscure bureaucratic job. (How many Americans do you think can name incumbent chairman Mike Duncan? Or even his former Democratic counterpart, the much higher-profile Howard Dean?) African Americans' loyalty to the Democratic Party was forged during the New Deal and the Civil Rights Movement, and those bonds will be hard to break; the sandbox squabbles between Katon Dawson and his anonymous e-mail assailant won't help.

Gabriel Winant

Gabriel Winant is a graduate student in American history at Yale.

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