RNC Chair Watch: Zero Hour For RNC Race

With hours to go before the Republican National Committee votes whether to re-elect Chairman Michael Steele or instead pick one of his four opponents, no one gathered at the RNC meeting in National Harbor, Maryland is making any bets on the outcome.  As overused as the phrase is, the contest that will be decided by the 167-member National Committee is “up in the air.”

However, as members of the committee meet and talk in the hours before the voting, there are some very likely conclusions that can be made.

First, it does not look bright for Steele and odds are strong that Steele will fare poorly on early ballots and pull out—just as then-Chairman Mike Duncan withdrew in the early ballots in the ’09 race that was eventually won by Steele.  Despite a strong performance in the debate with rivals at the National Press Club earlier this month, Steele has never been able to fully explain the party’s seven-figure debt under his watch.  Moreover, while Steele and such backers as Michigan RNC member Holly Hughes insist he has fifty-to-sixty votes, those willing to commit publicly to the embattled chairman number less than twenty in most official counts.  Coupled with the switch of his strongest booster on the committee (California Committee member Shawn Steele, no relation) to Wisconsin State Chairman Reinge Priebus, Michael Steele has very little room in which to grow.

Second, rising early does not always pay dividends.  Priebus, bristling with captures of the Senate seat, the governorship, two new House seats and both houses of the legislature in his state, came on strong in the beginning.  All three RNC members from North Dakota backed him, Mississippi Committeeman Henry Barbour was rounding up backers from the South, and all counts showed the Badger State man the favorite.  Just last week, New Hampshire State GOP Chairman John Sununu weighed in for Priebus.  But Sununu’s endorsement was the first being unveiled by the Priebus camp in weeks.  By all accounts, the Wisconsin chairman did not fare well in the debate and the perception that he is an “establishment” Republican is hard for him to shake.  Barbour insists this is unfair, that Priebus was “well thought of by the tea party in his state and will reach out to them as RNC chairman.”  Priebus will probably lead on the first ballot but it is unclear whether his support will grow.

Third, late bloomers sometimes blossom.  If there is any last minute momentum, it appears to be with Michigan Republican National Committeeman Saul Anuzis and Maria Cino, onetime Bush Administration official and operating head of the Natonal Republican Congressional Committee in the 1994 election cycle.  A self-styled “Kemp-Gingrich guy,” first-generation American Anuzis (he’s of Lithuanian heritage) has a solid background in conservative campaigns and causes and his mastery of Twitter, Facebook, and other social networking tools is copied and admired among Republicans nationally.  In contrast to complaints about Steele’s aloofness from the press, Anuzis is readily accessible to reporters ranging from Washington pundits to bloggers to the BBC (which featured him often in the ’08 campaign, in which he was Michigan National Chairman).

Anuzis appears to be winning over a number of uncommitted conservatives on the RNC and may well pick up all three of the votes who were committed to former RNC Political Director Gentry Collins before he exited the race two weeks ago.

Cino is well-liked nationally and picking up diverse support in the closing days of the race.  Backers of the former NRCC head and ’08 Republican National Convention manager range from Delaware’s moderate RNC member Priscilla Rakestraw to Utah’s conservative State Chairman Dave Hansen.  Outside the committee, former Ohio gubernatorial nominee (and ’09 chairman’s hopeful) Ken Blackwell came out for Cino last week. 

Much respected as an organizer and political tactician, Cino is nonetheless viewed with distrust by many on the right.  Her repeated mention of being a “pro-lfie Catholic” and conservative notwithstanding, several on the right see her as being a part of the same old crowd that has been running Republican organizations nationally.  More disturbing to them is the report that Cino donated money in the 1990’s to WISH List, a group dedicated to electing pro-abortion Republicans.

“Yes, I did make that donation,” Cino told me the last time we spoke, “Even though they certainly didn’t reflect my views, I felt it was important to elect Republicans who could win in districts where someone as conservative as I was couldn’t.  The important thing was to reach the majority in the House, which we did in 1994.”

Finally, there are stars and there are shooting stars.  The fifth candidate, former RNC Co-Chairman Ann Wagner, seemed to be a star in the beginning.  She had the “establishment” tie (Karl Rove helped her become co-chairman in the Bush years) as well as conservative credentials, brandishing the blessings of the Eagle Forum’s Phyllis Schlafly and Missouri’s Lieutenant Gov. Peter Kinder.  But Wagner, a former ambassador to Luxeumberg, just never caught on.  She had not been on the RNC for several years and, in a group that changes rather rapidly, one can return after several years and find there aren’t as many familiar faces.

As it was in the last three chairman’s races I covered—1993, ’97, and 2009—a crowded and contested race usually means any man—or woman—can win.  That’s about all one can say with certainty as the race for RNC chairman is about to begin.