By Dan Gilgoff, God & Country
A who's who of religious conservatives endorsed former Ohio Secretary of State and Christian right darling Kenneth Blackwell's candidacy for Republican National Committee chairman over the weekend. The lineup includes Focus on the Family founder James Dobson, Christian radio magnate Stuart W. Epperson, and Family Research Council chief Tony Perkins, whose group currently employs Blackwell.
However Blackwell fares in the race, it will be a major development for one of the big arguments facing the GOP after its sweeping 2008 losses: How big a role should the religious right play in the future of the party?
I see three potential outcomes.
The first is a Blackwell victory, which would represent a major upset for the Republican establishment and would mark a stunning coup for the religious right. The party would face the challenge of widening its appeal under a more conservative regime after losing the middle last November. This could turn out to be a redux of Sarah Palin, who was supposed to simultaneously shore up the GOP's religious base and bring in new Republican voters (women) but succeeded only in the former.
The second possibility is a Blackwell loss at the hands of a more moderate candidate, either current Chairman Mike Duncan or former Maryland Lt. Gov. Michael Steele, which would signal an establishment rebuke to the GOP's evangelical grass-roots base. This could provoke some social conservative luminaries to threaten to leave the party. A similar drama engulfed the Republican Party a decade ago.
The third outcome is Blackwell's defeat by another social conservative, like current South Carolina GOP Chairman Katon Dawson or Chip Saltsman, Mike Huckabee's former campaign manager. That would give religious conservatives a powerful voice in the RNC without seeing the installation of their dream candidate. It's the least dramatic option, and perhaps also the least likely.