Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele has turned the race to lead the party upside down with a defiant announcement that he’ll seek a second term.
Steele told RNC members he’d be among the already crowded field of chairman candidates despite a tumultuous two years at the helm and strong suggestions he’d slip away quietly. Among the contenders he’ll be challenging in next month’s election are former allies, and some of the RNC members he counted as supporters already have endorsed his rivals in the contest.
Following the call with members Monday night, Steele sent out a letter detailing Republicans’ successes in 2009 and 2010 and asking for the 168 members’ support.
“Our work is not done; and my commitment has not ended,” he wrote. “I believe the worst thing we can do now is to look backwards. Who you elect as our next Chairman will speak volumes about our willingness to truly be the party of Lincoln. What we do as a party must reflect the realities of the political marketplace and the voters. Growth for our movement requires new allies.”
Republicans have been frustrated with Steele, the former Maryland lieutenant governor and first African-American to lead the committee. Most often RNC members complain about his inability to raise funds, the primary task of a party chairman, but they also have problems with Steele’s management of the committee. Republicans have cited Steele’s tour to less Republican-friendly parts of the United States during the last couple months of the 2010 election, his tour marketing his book, an RNC staffer taking young donors to a strip club and unusually high amounts of money already spent on the 2011 Republican National Convention as problems.
Steele’s support from committee members was shaky from the beginning: In the January 2009 vote he was victorious only after six rounds of balloting eliminated the competition. At least one of his rivals from that bid, Saul Anuzis of Michigan, is running again.
News outlet estimates have placed Steele’s support in the 2011 vote at about 40 to 50 members, about half of what he would need to win. His entry means the other candidates will divide up the anyone-but-Steele vote.
An early frontrunner in the race is Reince Priebus, chairman of the Republican Party of Wisconsin. Priebus managed Steele’s race for chairman in 2009 and served as general counsel for the RNC until earlier this month. Norm Semanko, the chairman of the Idaho Republican Party and another Steele ally, took his place.
Another former Steele ally, Gentry Collins, created a splash in November when he resigned as political director of the RNC. He wrote a letter detailing problems at the RNC during Steele’s tenure, and on Monday he launched his own bid for chairman. He cited his experience as a political operative in Iowa and at the RNC as assets. He announced that Iowa GOP Chairman Matt Strawn, who announced last week that he’ll run for a second term, and Connecticut GOP Chairman Chris Healy, who recently abandoned the idea that he would run for chairman himself, are supporting him.
Former Missouri GOP Chairwoman Ann Wagner and former Republican National Convention CEO Maria Cino have also announced they’ll run for chairwoman of the RNC. With Steele’s announcement, it seems the crowded field may be complete. Former RNC Chairman Mike Duncan seems less likely to run at this point, as does former South Carolina Chairman Katon Dawson, who finished second to Steele in 2009.
Steele’s entry in the race also means former Minnesota Sen. Norm Coleman, now a leader of the American Action Network, will not get in despite early flirtation with a bid.
Four of the potential candidates — Anuzis, Wagner, Collins and Duncan — participated in a public forum hosted by FreedomWorks, a tea-party-affiliated nonprofit, and the Republican National Conservative Caucus, a group of 26 RNC members led by Indiana Committeeman James Bopp Jr. on Dec. 1. More participated in private interviews with RNC members the following morning.
The next test will come Jan. 3 when candidates will participate in an afternoon debate at the National Press Club. Anuzis, Cino, Priebus and Wagner have confirmed they’ll be there, according to Americans for Tax Reform and the Daily Caller, who are sponsoring the debate. People who register at rncdebate.org can submit questions for the debate.