Updated: 3:47 p.m.
NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. — In the race between current Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele and everybody else, it appears everybody else is winning.
Steele failed to lead on the first four ballots, and he huddled with another candidate in a secret meeting just before the fourth round was announced. Wisconsin Republican Party Chairman Reince Priebus led on the first ballot and picked up more votes on the second ballot, going from 45 votes to 52 votes. After the third ballot Priebus had 54 votes, and he jumped to 58 votes by round four. Steele, meanwhile, lost support, going from 44 votes to 37 in round two and then plunging to 33 votes in round three and 28 votes in round four.
Former RNC official Maria Cino lost two votes in the second round, going from 32 votes to 30 votes. In the third round she dropped to 28 votes and in the fourth round she jumped to 29 votes. It was the first time a candidate other than Steele was in second place.
Former Missouri GOP Chairwoman Ann Wagner picked up votes, going from 23 votes in the first round to 27 in the second and 32 in the third round. By the fourth round, Wagner was back down to 28 votes. Former Michigan GOP Chairman Saul Anuzis lost votes: In the first round he got 24 votes, and in the second round he finished last with 22 votes. In round three he had 21 votes. In the fourth round he had 24 votes, still the last place.
Several more ballots are expected before someone reaches the 85-vote threshold. Steele won the 2009 race after six rounds, defeating a five-candidate field that included Anuzis and then-Chairman Mike Duncan.
All eyes are now on Steele to see if his support begins to dwindle.
The backroom deal-making continued between the third and fourth rounds of balloting, yet none of the five candidates dropped out before fourth-round voting began.
Steele and Wagner were seen entering a side room. After about five minutes, Wagner exited and rushed back into the members-only area of the ballroom. Steele exited the room a minute later and told reporters no deal had been cut.
It’s unclear exactly what the deal would consist of and who would drop out, but the secret meeting is evidence there could be movement following the fourth ballot.
In 2009, Duncan dropped out after three rounds after watching his vote total dwindle from 52 to 44. He had led after the first round and was tied with Steele after the second round.
The sense as voting began was that if Steele did not finish in first place after the first ballot, he would have a difficult chance of winning. Much of the talk among members before this vote centered on whether Steele would leave the race when it became apparent he could not win.
“From people I’ve talked to, it’s my impression that he’s very determined,” New Hampshire Committeeman Wayne MacDonald told Roll Call shortly before the first vote.
Stan Stein, the new chairman of the North Dakota Republican Party and a Priebus supporter, said the first count was about where more experienced committee members thought it would be. “There’s a lot of arm twisting going on in there,” he said.
The first round of voting followed a nomination process in which one member endorsed and officially nominated each candidate.
The most memorable argument for Steele came from Rhode Island Committeeman Joseph Trillo, who seconded Steele’s nomination because of the GOP’s success in the midterm elections.
“What corporation changes their head when you’ve just had your biggest win?” Trillo asked. “So I urge all of you, let’s not change chairmen.”
Wisconsin Committeeman Steve King nominated Priebus, touting the GOP’s wins in the Badger State and Priebus’ record of retiring debt, raising money and staying on message — a subtle jab at Steele.
Ohio GOP Chairman Kevin DeWine nominated Cino, highlighting her past work for the RNC and the National Republican Congressional Committee. He also noted her support from new Speaker John Boehner (Ohio).
Anuzis was nominated by senior Virginia Committeeman Morton Blackwell, who argued that Anuzis would best incorporate tea party activists, utilize social media, represent the party well in the media and respond quickly to members’ questions.
Tennessee Chairman Chris Devaney nominated Wagner, citing her work as both RNC co-chairwoman and head of the Missouri GOP. “Ann Wagner will run a tight ship at the RNC,” Devaney said, “and will run it like a CEO.”
Prior to the vote for chairman, members reported the results of committee meetings during the week and debated the committee’s new proposed budget, ultimately passing it on a voice vote.
Following the chairman’s race, committee members will also vote for co-chairman, treasurer and secretary.