By Jim VandeHei
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 14, 2006
Sen. Mel Martinez (R-Fla.), a close White House ally and a Cuban American, has agreed to become the next general chairman of the Republican National Committee, GOP officials said. The appointment comes in the wake of an election that yielded shrinking GOP support from Hispanic voters.
Martinez, a first-term senator, will remain in office and serve as the party's chief spokesman and fundraiser heading into the 2008 elections. Mike Duncan, the RNC's current general counsel and a former party treasurer, will manage day-to-day operations and be elected chairman in January, Republican aides said.
An official announcement is expected soon.
The current RNC chairman, Ken Mehlman, will step aside in January, after spending much of his tenure updating the party's technological infrastructure and reaching out to minority groups, especially African Americans and Hispanics. Exit polls last week showed that Mehlman's efforts were overwhelmed by voter concerns about the war, corruption and the hard-line approach some Republicans assumed in this year's immigration debate.
Democrats won 69 percent of the Hispanic vote last Tuesday, a 10-year high. That was seen as a big setback at the White House in particular, after Bush won 44 percent of the Hispanic vote in 2004.
Mehlman said in an interview last week that he is concerned about where the party stands with Hispanics. Hispanics are not single-issue voters, but GOP officials said the tone of the immigration debate hurt the party's standing with the fastest-growing minority group.
While Bush pushed for a comprehensive package that included a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants, the Republican-controlled Congress demanded a fence-first law that emphasized security.
Exit polling showed that 57 percent of voters favor allowing illegal immigrants a shot at legal status. Martinez is a leading advocate of a Bush-style solution to the nation's immigration problems.
The selection of Martinez was a setback for Maryland Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele, who last week lost a Senate race and who has expressed interest in the job. GOP officials said it was not coincidental that both Steele and Martinez are minorities who have shown an ability to broaden the party's appeal. Republicans captured 10 percent of the African American vote last week, identical to the 2004 number.
It also does not hurt that Martinez is familiar with Florida, the electoral prize that has been a main arena in recent presidential elections. Martinez won election there in 2004, after resigning as secretary of Housing and Urban Development to make the run.
Martinez earned some national fame in 2000 when, as a top U.S. official, he strenuously argued before Congress and TV cameras that a Cuban boy named Elian Gonzalez should not be forced to return to Cuba. Five years later, he was again on the national stage, this time unintentionally, when a top aide of his was outed as the author of a memo detailing a political strategy for intervening to keep Terri Schiavo, the brain-damaged Florida woman, alive.
The only Hispanic Republican in the Senate, Martinez, 60, is expected to focus mostly on speaking out for GOP candidates, raising money and pushing the party to broaden its reach. Duncan will be the nuts-and-bolts leader. The dual-leadership model is fairly common for modern party committees. It allows high-profile party officials to lend their experience to the committee without being consumed by managing a large organization.
Polling director Jon Cohen contributed to this report.