On paper, Michael Steele should be a shoo-in for reelection as chairman of the Republican National Committee. He presided over the Party’s return from political Siberia as President Obama entered the White House in early 2009 to massive victories in the 2010 midterm elections. Under Steele, the GOP first won gubernatorial victories in New Jersey and Virginia at the end of 2009 and then, a year later, a 63-seat sweep in the U.S. House – gaining the majority — a six-seat gain in the Senate, a six state gain in governors mansions and 680 state legislature seats. So why did his surprise announcement last night that he would seek a second term throw the Grand Old Party into chaos?
In practice, Steele’s tenure has been rocky at best. The RNC is $15 million in debt and his fundraising has been spotty. He has a habit of becoming the story with his frequent gaffes: from calling Afghanistan a “war of Obama’s choosing” to calling Rush Limbaugh’s language “incendiary” and “ugly” to saying abortion is “an individual choice.” And he sometimes has a political tin ear: his swanky book tour angered many RNC members who accused him of using his office for personal gain. “Tonight I come to my bosses with a record that only you can judge, based upon directions you made clear to me from the very beginning,” Steele told committee members on a 40-minute call last night announcing his reelection bid, according to Politico. “Yes, I have stumbled along the way, but have always accounted to you for such shortcomings. No excuses. No lies. No hidden agenda. Going forward, I ask for your support and your vote for a second term. Our work is not done; and my commitment has not ended.”
Steele also spent time defending the debt and explaining why investments weren’t made in certain states – some governors have said Steele’s mismanagement cost them several seats that could have been had with the right targeted funds. Many establishment Republicans have privately argued that the GOP’s successes have come in spite, not because, of Steele. Still, Steele made the case that he built a unique, unprecedented grassroots organization. “My style is a little bit different than most conventional Republican Party chairmen. My style is more grassroots-oriented. I’m much more of a street guy,” Steele last night told Greta Van Susteren on Fox News, where he was once a commentator before becoming RNC chair. “The job is fun.”
And the first African American GOP chairman also added on the call: “Who you elect as our next Chairman will speak volumes about our willingness to truly be the party of Lincoln.”
By all accounts, Steele has a decent shot at keeping his job because, even if most other Republicans in the country are unhappy with him, he’s done a good job of keeping a majority of the 168 RNC members happy. And they’re the only votes that count in this race. But it won’t be easy.
Steele’s presence in the race blows the already crowded field wide open. Former RNC chair Mike Duncan, who lost to Steele in early 2009, has said he would work to defeat Steele and is organizing challengers to work together to that end. This also means that former Minnesota Senator Norm Coleman would likely not get in to the race, as he told Steele he would not run if Steele did. The next month of what is sure to be chaos ahead of the election — to be held at the RNC’s Winter Meeting in January — will surely set many Republicans’ teeth on edge.
The challengers now include:
-Reince Preibus, chairman of the Wisconsin Republican Party and until recently a Steeele ally who served as the RNC’s general counsel. Preibus is widely viewed as the front-runner – if there is such a thing in such a secretive and quirky race. He has the endorsement of Henry Barbour, Haley Barbour’s nephew, which is widely viewed as a proxy endorsement for Haley himself. If Haley Barbour – a renowned former RNC chairman, Mississippi governor and chairman of the Republican Governor’s Association last cycle — does come out and directly endorse Preibus, his front-runner status would be cemented.
-Maria Cino, a former Bush administration official and deputy RNC chair. Cino has the backing of former Vice President Dick Cheney and former RNC chair Ed Gillespie, both of whom have thrown fundraisers for her.
-Gentry Collins, another former Steele ally whose spectacular resignation as RNC political director drew headlines.
-Ann Wagner, a former RNC co-chair, former Missouri Republican Party chairwoman and a powerful fundraiser. She’s telling members she could easily deal with the RNC’s debt and she’s benefitting today from at least one Steele defection: Tennessee Republican Party Chair Chris Devaney is expected to endorse Wagner today.
-Saul Anuzis, former Michigan Republican Party chairman.