Benkiser, whose title will be senior adviser, brings to the table a knowledge of all the players in the GOP–SREC members, county chairs, precinct chairs, the big fundraisers, the state party organization, the whole works. That’s worth something. On the other hand, her leadership of the party has been challenged from day one. Gina Parker ran a vigorous but unsuccessful race against her in 2004. Ross Ramsey reported in Texas Weekly at the time that Benkiser had the support of Texans for Lawsuit Reform while Parker was a trial lawyer. She also had opposition in 2008 and two candidates, including dissident Mark McHaig, of Katy, intended to challenge her if she ran for another term. n.
One of the factors that contributed to her resignation as chairman, according to the Lone Star Report, is that she received a complaint from the Hutchison campaign that she was giving the governor’s speech – that is, touting the state’s economy. In other words, she was taking sides in a race in which she was supposed to be neutral. Now she can campaign for Perry without drawing fire.
I can’t envision Benkiser being much of an asset beyond her stumping for Perry. As a strategist, she muffed the attempt to get Tom DeLay off the ballot in 2006; she ruled him ineligible to run for re-election to his congressional seat because he had moved to Virginia, but the ploy was thrown out by an Austin federal district court and likewise rejected by the Fifth Circuit. By that time, it was too late for DeLay to resign and allow the Republican party to name a replacement. The result was that the GOP was left with a write-in against Democrat Nick Lampson. (Pete Olson regained the seat for the Republican party in 2008.)
Benkiser made a bid for national prominence last year by teaming up with Ohio Secretary of State Kenneth Blackwell on a ticket to seek the co-chairmanship (akin to vice-president) of the Republican National Committee, but that effort went nowhere.
Benkiser may have decided to join Perry because she was getting out of Dodge one step ahead of the posse. The Statesman’s Gardner Selby reported various criticisms of Benkiser from Republican sources, including Chad Wilbanks, who stepped down as executive director of the party shortly after Benkiser’s election; Selby quoted him as saying that “she lacks the right stuff” and “A role of the chairman is to wake up each morning, look in the mirror, and ask: ‘What do we need to do to remain relevant?’”
In agreement were Republican legislators Jodie Laubenberg of Parker and Phil King. “Her heart is in the right place,” Selby quoted King as saying, and also attributed to him observations that the party needs a new chair to recruit better candidates, develop appealing policy ideas and cultivate grass-roots support.
So the answer to the question, Big deal or not? is “probably not.” The Perry campaign can send her out to criticize Hutchison, and to woo her contact list, but Benkiser has too many critics and too little to show for her tenure as chairman to be a major asset to the campaign.