College Republicans meet under shadow
Seattle Times staff reporters
When hundreds of College Republicans gather for their national convention this weekend in Arlington, Va., their top order of business will be to choose the man who could be the next generation's Karl Rove.
The race for chairman of the College Republican National Committee — a coveted post that has been an early career stop for many of the GOP's top political strategists — typically has been a foregone conclusion, with the job handed down through a series of handpicked successors.
But the young Republicans this year are facing a bitterly contested fight over who should lead their organization, largely because of a scandal involving the group's fund-raising practices that raked in millions of dollars by flooding elderly donors with aggressive and misleading appeals for money.
Some of those letters were signed by the man who is favored to become chairman, current treasurer Paul Gourley.
The race for chairman, a paid position in Washington, D.C., is watched by the White House and the Republican National Committee (RNC), which have come to rely on the young Republicans as a piece of the capital's conservative machinery.
That the race has been hard-fought and a bit rough is no surprise given the College Republicans' track record of turning out practitioners of bare-knuckle politics.
They include Rove, President Bush's top political adviser, the late Lee Atwater, anti-tax leader Grover Norquist and Jack Abramoff, the Republican lobbyist embroiled in an ethics scandal.
This is not a group that avoids controversy. The keynote speaker at the convention, which opens today, is embattled House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas.
Alumni stay connected, too. College Republicans mobilized in support of Bush's Social Security plan after a conference call with Rove, according to RNC press secretary Tracey Schmitt.
Abramoff, chairman from 1981 to 1985, was paid $10,000 by College Republicans in 2002 for what Doug McGregor, the group's executive director, said were "accounting and legal services." McGregor said he did not know specifically what those services were. A spokesman for Abramoff refused to comment.
The fund raising that fuels much of the campaign for chairman was reported on last year by The Seattle Times, which looked at the group's national direct-mail program, and the Durham (N.C.) Herald-Sun, which reported the same day on North Carolina donors.
Some of the most prolific donors said they were unaware they had been giving so much money to the group because the fund-raising letters often came under the names of other official-sounding organizations, such as "Republican Headquarters 2004," and led some to believe the money was going to Bush's re-election campaign.
Most of the donations were plowed back into the fund-raising effort. Much was paid to Response Dynamics Inc. (RDI), a Virginia-based conservative direct-mail house, and its affiliates.
The current College Republican chairman, Eric Hoplin, initially denied problems with the fund raising. But Hoplin, after intense criticism from other College Republican leaders, announced in March that the group would terminate its contract with RDI — something he said he had wanted to do all along.
Gourley, the insider pick to succeed Hoplin, has been ensnared in the fund-raising imbroglio. As treasurer, he signed some of the group's most controversial fund-raising letters.
Vying with Gourley is California's Michael Davidson, former head of the Berkeley College Republicans, who has been critical of the fund-raising tactics and of the national organization's refusal to "open the books" and explain how its contract with the direct-mail company worked.
In months of campaigning, the two candidates have crisscrossed the country to line up support among state delegates who will vote at the convention.
The fund-raising controversy has threatened to upset the usual succession of leaders. Gourley said much of the criticism is unfair, and added that College Republican leaders long had been uncomfortable with the content of their fund-raising letters.
"I was asked to sign these letters because no one else would do it," said Gourley, 23, who will graduate this summer from the University of South Dakota. As treasurer, a volunteer position, he said he did not work out of the group's headquarters or have day-to-day control of the fund raising.
Gourley said he and Hoplin deserve praise for terminating the RDI contract. "RDI was not a good company for us to work with for many reasons, and we are glad to be moved away from them," he said.
Davidson, 25, applauded the decision. He said he would ensure that any fund-raising letters are sent under the name of the College Republican National Committee, and that the content is made available to state College Republican leaders.
If history is a guide, Davidson's campaign is a long shot. The group's new leader almost always is handpicked by his predecessor, said Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform.
Morton Blackwell, a prominent conservative organizer and a College Republican alumni, said the election was so tightly controlled at one point in the past decade that it was "rigged." The group's fundamental role is to organize party activists on college campuses, but members in recent years have played a wider role that earned them a place among D.C.'s most prominent conservative activists.
A representative attends "The Wednesday Meeting," a group of nearly 100 activists who gather at Norquist's office each week. The group includes officials from political groups, think tanks, the House, Senate and the White House.
College Republican leaders recently were included in separate conference calls with Rove and Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., to help organize support for Bush's efforts to alter Social Security and push through judicial nominees, the RNC's Schmitt said. The group plans to rally on Capitol Hill after this weekend's election in a public show of support for the president's Social Security plan.
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A previous version of this story incorrectly reported the history of how College Republicans choose their chairman. The story said the "group's new leader almost always is handpicked by his successor." In fact, the group's new leader is almost always picked by his predecessor.
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