For decades, elections in the College Republicans have been known as "sandbox politics," a low-stakes training ground that has produced such masters as Lee Atwater, Karl Rove, Ralph Reed and Grover Norquist.
"It's like passion mixed with Clearasil," said conservative publicist Craig Shirley, a former College Republican.
This year, however, a new ingredient has raised the stakes in the fight for control: large sums of money. Forced by the 2002 campaign finance law to become an independent "527" political committee, the College Republican organization has turned into a fundraising gold mine.
The College Republican National Committee (CRNC) is no longer a poor cousin to the Republican National Committee, dependent on a $150,000 stipend for survival. In 2003 and 2004, the CRNC raised $17.3 million. Most of the money went to pay fundraising costs, but more than $2 million was left over to hire field operatives, pay top officers and staff, and cover office and travel expenses.
The large operating budget has made the CRNC chairmanship a much-sought-after political plum. But it has also generated controversy within the group. As the campaign for the chairmanship of the College Republicans heats up, the two candidates -- Michael Davidson of California and Paul Gourley of South Dakota -- are fighting over the techniques used to raise the $17 million.
Gourley, a senior at the University of South Dakota, is the current national treasurer and is viewed as the establishment candidate. The pattern in recent years has been for the establishment candidate to win easily. Davidson went to the University of California at Berkeley and in 2003 he was chairman of the state College Republicans.
The current chairman, Eric Hoplin, and Gourley have been attacked by critics for allowing Response Dynamics, the company doing fundraising, to use questionable methods. These tactics included repeated solicitations using letterheads and language suggesting that money donated would go directly to the Republican Party or to the Bush campaign. Some of the recipients of the appeals were elderly men and women suffering from dementia.
One of the most controversial solicitations carried the letterhead "Republican Headquarters 2004" and asked for $1,000 "because you have been such a patriot, a Republican stalwart and a loyalist to President Bush and the GOP agenda." The letter was signed by "Paul Gourley, National Director."
Gourley said that he never saw the letter until it was posted on a blog, and that he never approved either the content or the use of his name. He, Hoplin and others in national headquarters led a long negotiation to end the contract with Response Dynamics, he said.
Davidson's platform calls for the College Republicans to "align our fundraising practices with our principles."
Davidson declines to publicly criticize Hoplin and Gourley. But a pro-Davidson blog titled "CRNC Chatter: Truth Fears No Trial" declared: "Paul Gourley was the one who signed the fundraising letters that has brought this organization so much negative attention."
Meanwhile, the pro-Gourley "CR Veterans for Truth" ran a statement from Rhode Island College Republican Chairman Pratik Chougule charging that the Davidson campaign is spreading lies about Gourley. "I was mislead into changing my support," Chougule said. " I discovered that it was given to me from a Davidson insider."
The Gourley-Davidson contest has produced opposition research that would be the envy of a presidential campaign. The opponents have lined up endorsements from Capitol Hill, governors, and conservative talk-radio hosts.
"The College Republicans have become something they never were," said David Keene, chairman of the American Conservative Union. "I think obviously it's a more powerful and influential organization, and it means the chairman is even more a player. If you have an independent base, that means party leaders can't just tell you, 'Shut up, kid.' "