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RNC Contenders Lining Up Against Steele

Chairman Hasn’t Said He’ll Seek Second Term

Updated: 7:27 a.m.

Correction Appended

Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele would be very lucky to keep his job after the RNC’s mid-January meeting. As Steele continues to waver on whether he’ll run for re-election, candidates for the RNC chairmanship are building up their own images by drawing a contrast with his.

Steele’s reputation for disorganization, gaffes and media scrutiny, problems with fundraising and shaky conservative credentials have led to a practical mutiny among much of the committee’s membership, the 168 Republicans who will choose the next chairman. On Wednesday afternoon, the 26-member Republican National Conservative Caucus and the tea-party-affiliated FreedomWorks will fire the opening shot, convening a panel of potential candidates for Steele’s job at the Washington Hilton. Steele was invited but had given no signal that he planned to attend.

The next RNC chairman will be the voice for Republicans across the country, lay the groundwork for the 2012 Republican presidential nominee, oversee the party’s national efforts in redistricting and help the four states with off-year elections. But the new leader’s influence may be short-lived: The future GOP presidential nominee will become the de facto head of the party and could install his or her own team. 

On Tuesday, Republican Members of Congress mostly avoided the question of whether Steele should continue.

“I think it’s very important to have a conversation about what the RNC is doing right and what it’s doing wrong,” Rep. Michele Bachmann (Minn.) told Roll Call between floor votes.

Since his party won back the House, picked up six Senate seats and made massive gains in state Houses and governorships last month, two bombs have dropped on Steele. The first was political director Gentry Collins’ resignation letter, which laid out problems at the committee since Steele took charge in 2009. Collins has since said he’s considering running for chairman and will attend Wednesday’s panel. The second was the revelation that the committee has already spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on the 2012 convention to be held in Tampa, Fla., in August 2012 and that Steele may be considering a deal to leave his current job to run the convention.

Those blows, coming at the end of a rocky two years at the helm, have left Steele in a weak position if he decides to run again. An Associated Press poll of 51 of the 168 RNC members found that 39 preferred that Steele not run again. 

Similarly, a new survey from Democratic-leaning Public Policy Polling found that an increasing number of Republican primary voters want Steele gone: A July poll discovered 28 percent wanted him to be replaced, while the November poll found 47 percent wanted him to leave. Released Tuesday, the poll had a margin of error of 4.9 points. Texas committeeman Bill Crocker said he’s among the members who would like Steele to move on.

“I think we need to make a change,” he said. “I think Michael needs to move on to better things. He can claim a great deal of success over the last two years.”

RNC members have been saying privately that the party’s wins were despite of Steele, not because of him, and since Collins went public with his complaints, others have held little back in going after Steele’s troubled tenure.

Candidates for the RNC spot have offered subtle critiques of Steele’s leadership while boosting their own qualities. Several have hinted they would not seek the media spotlight, a reference that Steele’s TV gaffes were a problem, or say that they’d focus on fundraising, with the subtext being Steele has not. The conservatives organizing the panel will rank the contenders based on qualities such as humility, fairness and managerial skills.

Among the ranking criteria is the ability to be a good spokesperson: “Skills and professional presence to articulate the Republican message accurately, clearly and persuasively without superseding it with divergent personal views.” That’s a clear reference to Steele’s sometimes awkward media appearances that invited conservatives to question his ideological bonafides.

Steele has struggled as chairman, beginning with his election in 2009. It took the former lieutenant governor of Maryland six ballots to win the job over former South Carolina GOP Chairman Katon Dawson and other candidates. His public spat with talk show host Rush Limbaugh early in his tenure embarrassed members of the committee. Steele was forced to fire an RNC staffer after a party credit card was used at a racy night club, and members publicly fretted his book tour distracted from the party’s goal of winning elections. By the time of the Southern Republican Leadership Conference in March 2010, more than 58 RNC members felt it was necessary to quell calls for his ouster by writing a letter supporting him in his continuing role.

Of those signers, several are now calling for new leadership or are interested in running themselves.

California committeeman Shawn Steel, who helped organize the letter supporting Steele, noted that the chairman’s record of success is nearly unprecedented, beginning with wins in the New Jersey and Virginia gubernatorial races in 2009 and culminating in Republican gains across the country in 2010. 

“Nobody can match his record. None of these candidates have been in his same league, have the same kind of experience, have the same kind of credentials, and none of them can go into the communities Michael has been able to go into,” he said. He cited Steele’s visit to Harlem as an example.

Only two Republicans, Michigan GOP Chairman Saul Anuzis and former RNC Co-Chairwoman Ann Wagner from Missouri, have publicly announced they will run for the job so far, and both will participate in today’s panel. Collins and Connecticut Republican Party Chairman Chris Healy will also attend. Organizers said Maria Cino, CEO of the 2008 Republican National Convention, will also participate in the panel, but a source close to Cino said she will not be there. 

Meanwhile, a host of other Republican officials have been mentioned for the job, including Republican Party of Wisconsin Chairman Reince Priebus, Republican Governors Association Executive Director Nick Ayers and former RNC Chairman Mike Duncan. Republican sources said Priebus would be a favorite, but he has kept quiet about his intentions. In addition to today’s panel and reception, which are open to the public, some RNC members will have a chance to privately interview potential candidates during a Thursday morning reception. 

The race has picked up unusual momentum.

“What’s happening here is that there’s a lot of interest, part of it driven by Steele’s non-performance in fundraising, and that sort of got everything going sooner than we usually get going,” David Norcross, an RNC committeeman from New Jersey, told Roll Call. “Then the convention stories came along, and that kind of highlighted the race again, so we’re a little bit ahead of ourselves.”

For his part, Norcross said he and Dawson have tried to talk each other into running for the job. But if he and Dawson decide not to run, Norcross told Roll Call, he’d look for someone with management experience who could present the party’s position publicly.

“I’m looking at Priebus, Anuzis, Cino and Wagner,” he said. “They’ve all been in positions where they had to conduct themselves in a way that can be understood and persuasive. They have all had to raise money, and they’ve all had some management experience.”

Like Norcross, a number of members are signing on again with the candidate they supported in the 2009 race. Giovanni Cicione, the chairman of the Rhode Island Republican Party and an RNC committeeman, said he told Anuzis he would support him again. 

Alec Poitevint, a committeeman from Georgia, said he would support Ayers as having the right set of experiences if he chooses to run but didn’t know if the RGA official would mount a bid.

Regardless of whether Ayers decides to run the race is only in its beginning stages and very much up in the air, as Nevada committeewoman Heidi Smith pointed out.

“I think most people are going to that meeting on Jan. 12 not sure who they’re going to vote for,” she said.

Kyle Trygstad contributed to this report.

Correction: Dec. 1, 2010

The article misidentified Rep. Michele Bachmann’s home state. Bachmann is from Minnesota.

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