Does Steele Have Strength to Hold RNC Chair?


Jackson, Miss. –  Arriving in Jackson last night, I learned the answer to the “question of the week” that had held pundits, politicians, and assorted political junkies spellbound: that after 24 hours of speculation about his intentions, Michael Steele announced that he would seek re-election as Republican National Chairman after all.

The embattled chairman made his intentions known in a nationwide conference call exclusively for the 167 members of the Republican National Committee (“Even I wasn’t permitted on the call,” Steele spokesman Doug Heye told me), who will choose between Steele and five opponents at their winter meeting in January.

“Yes, I have stumbled along the way,” Steele said on the call, acknowledging controversies surrounding his handling of RNC finances and public gaffes he has made, “but I have always accounted to you for such shortcomings.”  

Whether Steele’s humble tone and the party’s big win November 2 helps him overcome criticism of his management style remains to be seen.  Although Steele has yet to release the names of the fifty RNC members his backers claim support his re-election, he still has some fervent backers who are willing to go to the wall for him.  Among them are California’s National Committeeman Shawn Steele, Illinois State GOP Chairman Pat Brady, and Pennsylvania State Chairman Robert Gleason.

“I think Michael probably did have fifty supporters on the committee right after November 2 but that support has probably collapsed like a house of cards,” Mississippi’s Republican National Committeeman Henry Barbour told me last night.  Barbour, nephew of Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, has been a key supporter of Wisconsin State Chairman Reince Priebus for the RNC post.  In repeating criticism of Steele’s management style (“Fundraising’s not enough and expenses were too much”), Henry Barbour said that the time was right for his man Priebus because “he oversaw an across-the-board sweep in Wisconsin this year and he has good relations with the tea party movement, which Michael does not.”  

(Another criticism of Steele is that he has not reached out to tea party activists enough; at an RNC rally in Orange County, California in October, Steele was featured along with tea party favorite Sarah Palin and spokesman Heye said that the former Alaska governor and the RNC chairman “are friends and e-mail all the time; Palin has yet to endorse anyone in the RNC battle”).

One interesting development in the race is that, along with Barbour, a number of backers of former South Carolina State Chairman Katon Dawson in ’09 (when he narrowly lost the RNC chair to Steele) are weighing in for Wisconsin’s Priebus.  Along with Barbour, Mississippi State Chairman Brad White, Georgia National Committeeman Alec Poitevant, and Utah National Committeeman Brian Huff are soon expected to declare publicly for Priebus.

Other candidates for the chairmanship made it clear that Steele’s statement last night meant nothing to them and they were in the race to stay.  One of them, former RNC Co-Chairman Ann Wagner, called for the committee “to immediately freeze any new spending, new contracts, new appointments and new hiring until a new chair is elected.”  Wagner, who announced the support of Tennessee’s National Committeeman John Ryder, promised “a full audit of the RNC’s financial operations and contracts” if elected.  

Former NRCC head Maria Cino, backed by Dick Cheney and former RNC Chairman Ed Gillespie, responded to Steele’s announcement by saying: “It’s an unfortunate fact that our party is now challenged by very serious issues: massive debt, outdated technology, diminished donor support, and a non-existent voter registration program.”

Two other contenders, Michigan’s National Committeeman Saul Anuzis and former RNC Political Director Gentry Collins, are also likely to take a few swings at Steele in the wake of his announcement.  

Last night, Michael Steele surprised a lot of observers (including me) by opting to run again after all.  In the coming weeks, he will be watched to see how he handles criticism, whether he goes on the attack, and whether his friends can rally the support that made him the surprise winner for chairman two years ago.  But the response of his opponents and their backers is a clear sign that Steele has his work cut out for him — and the frequent characterization of him as “embattled chairman” is an accurate one.