Meet Gentry Collins, a former Steele aide challenging his boss for RNC chairman

Alex Pappas Political Reporter
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Gentry Collins says the Republican National Committee needs another Lee Atwater, Haley Barbour, Ed Gillespie or Ken Mehlman to run the national political organization.

“I try to remind members that if you go back over the last several decades of RNC history, the most successful chairmen have been professional political operatives,” Collins, the former RNC political director, said in a recent interview with The Daily Caller.

The former Iowa state GOP chairman says that’s the argument he is making to the 168 members of the national committee, who will be considering him and five others in January for chairman.

“I’m no Haley Barbour,” he elaborated, “but I do share his professional background, and share that professional background with other chairman who have been successful.”

Those former chairmen, Collins says, are those “who have raised the most money, who have managed it most effectively, who have put the most cutting edge and most effective political programs in the field, [and] who have had the biggest and most positive impact on election outcomes.”

Collins, who mostly served as political director at the RNC under current chairman Michael Steele, made headlines shortly after this year’s election when he resigned his position and distributed a memo alarming members of the dire status of the committee’s finances. Soon after that, it became clear Collins was contemplating his own run for chairman.

But being a political operative hardly differentiates Collins from his fellow chairman candidates. Maria Cino, Ann Wagner, Saul Anuzis, Reince Preibus — who in addition to Steele have announced they are running — all have backgrounds as behind the scenes players in GOP politics.

So what makes Collins different from them? “No other candidate shares the history that I have of taking states that hadn’t been Republican providentially for sometime and leading them to victory in tough cycles,” he argues.

In 2004, only two states that Al Gore won in 2000 went for Bush, and one of those states was Iowa, which had not been in the Republican column for over two decades. Collins was head of the state party then.

And in the 2008 presidential election, Republican Sen. John McCain won Missouri. Collins coordinated that state’s effort for McCain.

“In the past couple presidential cycles, two of those three positive anomalies were states that I was running,” Collins said.

The major pitch he’s making to members for why the committee needs a change has roots in his departure memo: the RNC is not raising money from big donors like it should.

“I think there’s an understanding that 2010 was a very good political cycle, generally speaking but it wasn’t driven by the RNC,” Collins said.

While getting the “financial house in order” is an immediate priority, Collins also says “the other critical challenge in 2011 is finding a way to make certain that all of the energy and the grassroots around the country for conservative change is comfortable and confident that it can find a home in the Republican Party.”

Though Collins — who says the Tea Party movement is a “net positive” for the GOP — says he doesn’t find it likely, he calls Tea Party activists splintering “off into a third party effort” a worse case scenario for the party. That would re-elect President Obama, he said.

Other plans if he were to become chairman, Collins says, include leading an effort in 2011 to put referendums on the ballot — like repealing Obamacare initiatives —  in the 23 states around the country that allow them, which he says can help keep “the positive energy for conservative change” inside the GOP tent.

Doing that, he admits, also has very practical results.

“From a historical point of view, once you get into a presidential year, a successful ballot referenda campaign has a history, as you know, of positively altering turnout dynamics,” he said.

His entrance into the race — with such a high profile memo — surely made waves. Has he received any negative response from members calling his actions opportunistic and disloyal to his former boss?

“It’s been very limited,” he admitted. Instead, Collins says, he thinks most committee members are thankful he brought attention to the committee’s problems under Steele.

“The plurality of members — the majority of members — had a sense that not all was well,” Collins explained about the committee’s health, “but they didn’t have the facts until I gave them the facts. And I did that because my loyalty is to the party, and not to any one individual or officer.”

Collins said he went out of his way, when writing the memo, to “avoid personal references, to avoid rumor mill or hearsay type material and to focus simply and exclusively on verifiable facts.”

“And I think and time will tell, far more than not, members appreciated that,” he said.

Collins, who says he can’t pinpoint when he first thought of running for chairman, admits that coming out from behind the scenes is something new for him.

“It’s not something I had in mind for a long time,” he said. “I decided to run for chairman because I don’t believe that Republicans are going to have an easy time winning back the White House without substantial change at the RNC.”

This article is part of The Daily Caller’s weeklong series profiling the candidates vying to be the next chairman of the Republican National Committee. Those interested in participating in the Jan. 3 chairman’s debate hosted by The Daily Caller and Americans for Tax Reform by proposing or voting on questions to be asked of the candidates can go to www.rncdebate.org for more information