The 2011 RNC Winter Meeting

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Two years ago, the GOP was reeling from two brutal elections and a seeming eternity in the minority. As they gather for their annual winter meeting this year they have control of one chamber of Congress and are within striking distance of the other. That will not save, it seems, Chairman Michael Steele whose tenure was marked with gaffs and who leaves the Republican National Committee nearly $20 million in debt just as it’s scrambling to fund a massive redistricting push. Politico reported that 88 of the 168 Republican National Committee members told the paper that they will not vote for Steele. A majority of 85 is needed to win.

As it stands now, according Hotline’s excellent tally, Steele is trailing Wisconsin GOP Chair Reince Priebus, a former Steele ally who ran Steele’s 2009 campaign for chairman. Priebus has 41 confirmed votes, including today’s endorsement by the powerful outgoing New Hampshire Republican Party Chairman John Sununu. Priebus is hoping to take the lead on the first ballot; in 2009, Steele’s first ballot advantage over former RNC Chairman Mike Duncan set the tone and gave him momentum. Steele currently has 17 confirmed votes followed by Saul Anuzis and Ann Wagner with 14 votes apiece and Maria Cino with 12 votes. Which means the largest bloc – 70 votes – remains undecided.

The process of electing an RNC chairman is quirky and enigmatic. There are often several ballots – all are secret. Tomorrow’s vote is expected to be no different. In the first ballot Steele is expected to get anywhere from 40-60 votes – a thank you from members he helped with money and resources in the last two elections. The second ballot will be more important: will Priebus get enough of Steele defectors to win outright? Or could a dark horse emerge?

Of the other candidates, Cino has the most momentum of late. The former Bush Administration official has the support of Speaker John Boehner and former Vice President Dick Cheney. Boehner even stayed behind from last night’s Tucson memorial service in order to attend a fundraiser for Cino. That said, the 168 highly localized RNC committee members often react negatively to inside-the-Beltway pressure: a Connecticut member Boehner called for Cino last week ended up announcing his support for someone else.

Former Missouri Republican Party chair Ann Wagner released a new biographic video this week, spotted in the footage of her backers was former President George H. W. Bush. She is one of the strongest – if not the strongest – fundraiser of the group and she could make a convincing case that she is most able to fix the RNC’s money problems. She’s also just come from chairing Roy Blunt’s successful bid for Missouri’s open Senate seat and Missouri is likely to be a key state in the 2012 presidential election.

Finally, Saul Anuzis has the backing of the party chairs in Iowa and South Carolina – two key primary states. He’s a former party chairman in Michigan – a state where Republicans have made inroads of late. He has the advantage of being one of the 168 voting members and, aside from Steele, is the only one of the group who has run for chairman before.

Of the five candidates, any could win aside from Steele – if Politico’s tally is correct. Which means no matter what the Republican Party will have a new chairman by close of business tomorrow. Will the members seek to make history for the second time in a row and elect only the second woman ever to serve as chair on the heels of Steele, the first African American chairman? Will Steele, who pointedly hailed the Party as that of Lincoln earlier this month, play the race card if he’s not reelected? Tomorrow’s drama at National Harbor, Maryland, which will be broadcast live on C-SPAN, will certainly be fun to watch.