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.

Molly Riley/Reuters/File
Michael Steele after the the Republican Party elected him its chairman Jan. 30. His first six weeks on the job have distracted the party from rebuilding and presenting a viable alternative to the Democrats, some Republicans say.

No doubt about it, Michael Steele has had a rough start as chairman of the Republican Party.

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.

At a Monitor breakfast last Friday, Republican Senate leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky also predicted an upswing for the embattled new party chair. "I think it is safe to say that Michael Steele has gotten off to kind of a rough start," Senator McConnell said. "But we think he will hit his stride soon."

McConnell was also upbeat about the next election cycle.

"I am optimistic that we are going to do a lot better in candidate recruitment in this cycle than we have in the last two," he said, noting how President Bush's unpopularity made recruitment difficult for the past two elections.

In a way, Republican strategists have no choice but to be optimistic about Steele's continued presence as party chair. Ousting the party's first black chairman could be disastrous for the GOP's image. Moreover, the mechanics of an ouster are difficult: A two-thirds vote against Steele would be required at a meeting of the 168-member national committee, not just the executive committee. GOP chairs serve two-year terms, so if the 2010 midterms prove disastrous for Republicans, Steele could be voted out at the 2011 winter meeting.

In the meantime, Steele appears to have weathered the latest storm in his short tenure. By the weekend, talk among Republican leaders had turned back to criticizing Obama's budget. Social conservative activists were also largely silent, having said their piece about Steele's abortion comment.

Still, Steele has his work cut out in smoothing over his relationship with the party's religious conservatives, a key constituency, says John Green, an expert on politics and religion. Steele faces a problem that many party leaders encounter: "He has to keep the base happy, but he also has to expand the base," says Mr. Green, director of the Ray C. Bliss Institute of Applied Politics at the University of Akron.

"I suspect religious conservatives will come [around], because it's in their interest to do so, just as many of the religious-right figures came around to supporting [GOP presidential nominee] John McCain," says Green. "But of course the issue is how fervent will they be."

Though Steele is reducing his media exposure for a while, being a party spokesman remains a key part of his job, and he can't hide from the media altogether, nor would he want to, given his gregarious, talkative nature.

Still, says John Gizzi, political editor of the conservative weekly Human Events, Steele might consider the track record of one of his predecessors, Ray Bliss, who served as RNC chairman from 1965 to 1968.

Mr. Bliss "sat in a back office, chain-smoked, and raised money and recruited candidates by reading society, business, and sports pages from key districts he thought Republicans could win," notes Mr. Gizzi. One of his finds was Jack Kemp, a former quarterback for the Buffalo Bills, who was elected to the House and became a GOP star.

Bliss "let congressional leaders and the rising party farm team do the speaking," Gizzi says. "The party revived dramatically."

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