Michael Steele: On his way out as Republican Party chair?

From the start, Republican National Committee chairman Michael Steele was not only a historical figure in the GOP but a controversial one as well. Now he may be on the way out.

Tim McCarthy/The Asbury Park Press/AP
Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele campaigns for Republican candidate for 3rd congressional district Jon Runyan in October in Toms River, N.J.

From the start, Michael Steele was not only a historical figure in the Republican Party but a controversial one as well. Now he may be on the way out.

Steele, chairman of the Republican National Committee, is expected to announce his intentions about running for reelection to the top party post Monday evening. Several sources are reporting that he is expected to step down when his two-year term ends in January.

IN PICTURES: House Republicans retiring in 2010

“Steele … has built no known reelection team or structure, making a campaign unlikely in the face of competition that grows fiercer by the day,” reports Politico.com. “Key supporters expect him to drop out of the hotly contested race.”

As the first African American to head the RNC, Steele was seen as a counterpoint to the first African American president.

But the former Maryland lieutenant governor was gaffe-prone in his outspokenness, and critics within the GOP saw him as inept at fund-raising. Put off by Steele’s personal style and RNC management, some major donors began shifting to congressional campaign funds, the Republican Governors Association, and other conservative causes.

“The party, under his leadership, failed to raise the major-donor money that is required to defeat Barack Obama,” former RNC finance director Gentry Collins told the Wall Street Journal. Collins had resigned over alleged fiscal mismanagement by Steele.

According to a report in the Los Angeles Times, Connecticut Republican Chairman Chris Healy blames narrow GOP losses for governor in Oregon, Minnesota, Vermont, and Connecticut in the recent elections on the RNC's failure to provide more money for voter turnout.

“Clearly, the whole Steele administration has really been about promoting Mike Steele for whatever future role he was going to play in the American political debate and not really focused on what the core mission of the Republican Party is,” said Healy.

In one memorable kerfuffle early in his tenure, Steele dismissed talk show host Rush Limbaugh as “an entertainer” whose program was “incendiary.” When Limbaugh bristled, Steele called to apologize – which only reinforced criticism from the left that the GOP was actually run by Limbaugh and other fire-breathing conservatives.

Steele won no friends among social conservatives – an important segment of the GOP base – when he suggested that abortion was “an individual choice.”

It would have been a difficult time for any RNC chairman, particularly with the rise of the tea party movement. Tea partyers can be just as critical of establishment Republicans as they are of Democrats. In several recent races, tea party-backed primary election candidates ousted more mainstream Republicans – including incumbents.

In a recent letter to members of Tea Party Nation, one of the largest organizations in the movement, founder Judson Phillips wrote, “Capturing the chairmanship of the RNC is important to the Tea Party movement.”

"We need a conservative in as Chair of the RNC,” Phillips writes. “If not, we will end up with the same class of GOP knuckleheads that blew it so badly in 2006 and 2008.”

“If we do not win this battle for the heart and soul of the GOP, we will end up with either a second Obama term or perhaps as bad, a [Mitt] Romney presidency,” Phillips warns fellow tea partyers.

Those who’ve announced their candidacy (or been prominently mentioned) as the new RNC chair include: Gentry Collins, Wisconsin Republican Chair Reince Priebus, former RNC co-chair Ann Wagner of Missouri, Bush administration transportation official Maria Cino, tea party favorite Saul Anuzis of Michigan, and Nick Ayers, executive director of the Republican Governors Association.

According to an e-mail he sent, Steele will make his intentions known Monday in a private conference call with RNC members.

IN PICTURES: House Republicans retiring in 2010

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