The Republican road back to national power could run through South Carolina.
In the coming weeks, Republicans will begin plotting their new course – capped by choosing a Republican National Committee chairman in January – and South Carolina state GOP Chairman Katon Dawson is considered a contender for the position.
Dawson has not formally announced his candidacy but said he was being encouraged and was trying to assess “what it will take to get the job done.” Supporters have said they are working on his behalf. Dawson has a number of qualities suited to the job: He can motivate the diehards and work the grass roots; he's media savvy and disciplined; and he can raise money in South Carolina.
Dawson's chances got a boost Tuesday when the state GOP retained its federal seats and lost only two State House seats to Democrats.
While the rest of the country turned bluer, South Carolina remained red.
But that also could work against Dawson, observers said. The party was rejected by moderate voters Tuesday, and an S.C. perspective may do little to rebuild Republican appeal.
“I think you're going to have to redouble your efforts for sure,” Dawson said. “Governor's mansions in 2010 are going to be crucial.”
The Republican message – smaller government, lower taxes, national defense, free markets – still has stronger appeal among most voters than Democratic principles, Dawson said. Republicans need to find a better way to sell it. Dawson said the party needed to turn to a new generation of GOP.
“We've got some young stars in the party,” Dawson said, referring to Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, U.S. Rep. Mike Pence of Indiana and others. “We've got some superstars we haven't been showcasing.”
Whit Ayres, a GOP pollster with ties to South Carolina, said the RNC chairman has three duties:
Show voters they identify with Republican principles.
Help organize the party at every level.
Maintain optimism in states where Republicans are competitive.
Dawson's strengths, Ayers said, are his optimism and his ability to motivate those around him.
Dawson also knows how to curry favors. During the fall campaign, South Carolina sent about $350,000 to Florida, Pennsylvania and other battleground states. State-raised money is crucial because unlike money from the RNC, state money can be spent on certain get-out-the-vote efforts. Dawson has organized a meeting next week in Myrtle Beach with party officials from around the country.
Whomever the party chooses, Ayers said, the new chairman needs to broaden the party's appeal. That means talking about issues Republicans have sometimes avoided, such as the environment, but “rooted in timeless Republican values.”
“That doesn't mean you forsake your values,” Ayres said. “You apply them to the new challenges of the 21st century.”