Affirmative-Action Rule Complicates RNC Chair Race

How do you run a campaign when you could be disqualified, through no fault of your own, moments before balloting begins? That's a question a number of contenders are weighing as they vie for co-chairman of the Republican National Committee.

The possibility that the GOP may elect a woman as national party chairman for just the second time in its history is raising that prospect for candidates for the party's often-overlooked No. 2 post. That's because RNC rules require the co-chairman to be of the opposite sex of the chairman.

That rule will make Election Day more nerve-racking than usual for co-chairman candidates. They won't know whether they can run until the last moment, when a new national committee chairman is elected.

Take Sharon Day, one of Florida's representatives on the RNC, and Jan Larimer, the current co-chairman. Both are running this year, and even if one does line up the votes necessary to win the co-chairmanship, both will be ineligible to run if either of the two women seeking the top job--former Ambassador Ann Wagner and former Bush administration official Maria Cino--ends up winning.

Two men are now beginning to seek support for the co-chairman's post: Louisiana Republican Party Chairman Roger Villere and former North Dakota party chief Gary Emineth are preparing to take advantage if Wagner or Cino wins. It's a sign that the women are gaining traction.

"That says that the women are doing a good job making their positions known, and they're moving in the right direction," Villere said. He's not yet publicly supporting either Wagner or Cino, but he has worked with both in various capacities on the RNC. They are, he said, "a couple of great candidates."

Neither woman is a front-runner for the chairman's post, but both are quietly building support. Wagner has already secured at least two endorsements from three states, enough to be formally nominated for the ballot, and she has 11 public endorsements overall, according to the latest Hotline Whip Count. That puts Wagner in a tie for third place so far.

Cino, like Wagner, has served as RNC co-chair, and she was the liaison between the 2008 convention and RNC members. She counts backing from six national committee members.

The opposite-sex rule could have an impact on the more prominent chairman's race, too. Larimer and Day, both of whom have allies on the committee, need a victory by one of the male candidates for party chairman. They include Wisconsin Republican Party Chairman Reince Priebus, former Michigan Republican Party Chairman Saul Anuzis, former RNC Political Director Gentry Collins, and the incumbent chairman, Michael Steele.

The women seeking the No. 2 post don't need to throw their support behind any of the male candidates for chairman at the moment. But in an effort to save their own candidacies, they can organize an drive among allies to back the strongest male challenger after several ballots if one of the female candidates surges.

A male RNC co-chairman would be as historic as a female chairman. The RNC has had only one female chief: Mary Louise Smith, who was appointed by President Ford, served from 1974 to '77. The position of co-chairman was created after Smith's tenure in an effort to elevate more women to senior leadership positions within the party.