Despite Steele’s rough start, many in GOP optimistic
The new party chair has been mired in internal feuds, but expectations for next elections are building.
No doubt about it, Michael Steele has had a rough start as chairman of the Republican Party.Skip to next paragraph
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Mr. Steele broke with party custom – and raised fellow Republicans' hackles – by suggesting that the three GOP senators who supported President Obama's stimulus plan should face primaries in their next elections. He tussled with talk-radio titan Rush Limbaugh over who's the leader of the party and called him names, then had to apologize. In the biggest blowup, he told GQ magazine that he views abortion as an "individual choice," infuriating the social-conservative wing of his party.
In a nutshell, Steele has spent his first six weeks as party chair misspeaking and then apologizing, distracting the party from its main task of rebuilding and presenting a viable alternative to the Democrats.
Yet there is reason for optimism, say some Republicans. And his status as the party's first African-American chairman has something to do with it.
"Ultimately, I think he presents a good face of change for the party, which is why he was elected in the first place," says Whit Ayres, a Republican pollster based in northern Virginia. "It's not uncommon for new chairs to take a little while to get their sea legs. I seem to recall [former Democratic] chairman Howard Dean making a few comments that made waves early on before he got his sea legs. But his leadership, I think, has generally been praised by most Democrats since those early stumbles."
Mr. Dean presided over the Democratic takeover of both houses of Congress and, last November, the White House. His 50-state strategy – in which Democrats tried to be competitive in even the most conservative states – forced a more expansive view of the electoral map, with some success.
Now, Steele has turned his focus to the very same task: how to organize the party, raise money, and recruit candidates for a 2010 election cycle that history shows should give the Republicans some advantages. Historically, the president's party loses seats in the first midterm election. By November 2010, Mr. Obama is likely to "own" the struggling economy and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, in the eyes of voters, and Democrats could face some backlash at the polls.
Steele has cut back on interviews and national media appearances, and set about getting his office in order. Late last week, Steele announced the hiring of Rhode Island lawyer Ken McKay as chief of staff at the Republican National Committee. The RNC was also expected to name Trevor Francis, a managing director at the PR giant Burson-Marsteller, as communications director.