Gentry Collins, RNC Chairman Contender, Advocates For Ballot Measure Against Health Care

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WASHINGTON — A candidate to lead the Republican National Committee warned Monday that the GOP will hand a second term to Democratic President Barack Obama if the party doesn't elect a chairman who can harness voters' frustrations, prevent a third-party presidential candidacy and raise money quickly.

The first step is to put referenda against the Democrats' health care law on ballots next year.

"We at the RNC (should) lead a campaign to put referenda on the ballot to repeal Obama Care in as many states as state law allows, which is nearly two dozen," said Gentry Collins, a veteran operative who most recently was the RNC's political director. "What that does, I think, is prepares us for 2012 from a turnout perspective. But in 2011, it gives some constructive, positive place for all the energy that exists in the grassroots, in particular in the tea party, for conservative change."

Activists from the loosely organized tea party helped Republicans take control of the House and narrow the Democratic Party majority in the Senate. Republicans also picked up 10 governorships and gained control of 19 state legislative chambers. Strategists worry, though, that those new-to-politics voters might form their own political party and complicate Republican efforts.

"You've got to figure out very rapidly how to keep the party from splintering, how to make sure that we don't have a third-party challenge, which I think re-elects Barack Obama in 2012," Collins said in an interview that will air Sunday on C-SPAN.

A ballot measure, which would task tea party activists with collecting signatures and then votes, would help bring the nascent movement into the RNC fold without appearing to co-opt it. While tea party voters tended to favor GOP candidates in November, their anti-spending and anti-Washington rhetoric isn't directed exclusively at Democrats.

Republicans in January will select a chairman to steer the RNC through the 2012 presidential campaign. The chairman's race remains wide open, with most of the 168-member central committee publicly undecided on which candidate has their support.

Incumbent chairman Michael Steele has announced he is seeking a second term but many committee members are reluctant to give him and his bombastic approach another two years in the job. While Steele raised vast sums of money, he spent heavily and has racked up at least $15 million in debt.

"The RNC has got to get its financial house in order and do that very, very quickly," Collins said, noting $5 million of that debt is due in February.

Collins warned that winning the White House may be out of reach without turning around the finances for the RNC, which is expected to hand millions to the eventual presidential nominee and provide voter data that is costly and time-consuming to produce.

"I came to the conclusion, having seen a number of presidential campaigns from the inside, that if we didn't put the RNC back on track, that winning a presidential campaign was going to be much, much harder – and maybe not possible," he said.

Collins and Steele are competing with Michigan committeeman Saul Anuzis, former Missouri chairwoman Ann Wagner, former Bush administration official Maria Cino and Wisconsin GOP chairman and RNC lawyer Reince Priebus.