Michael Steele's surprise reelection bid complicates life for GOP

Republican Party chairman Michael Steele says he's running for reelection. Steele cites big GOP wins in the midterm elections, but his critics argue that gains could have been bigger without him.

Cliff Owen/AP
In this Nov. 2, 2010 file photo, Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele speaks in Washington. Steele announced that he'll seek re-election to the two-year post as several challengers line up to try to succeed him.

That giant groaning sound you hear is Republicans reacting to the surprise news that Michael Steele is running for reelection as chairman of the Republican National Committee.

But not all Republicans. Mr. Steele, whose two-year tenure has been marked by mismanagement, gaffes, and fundraising woes, does have his allies among the RNC’s 168 committee members – the group that will decide his fate next month. After all, he just presided over the biggest net gain in House seats for either party since the 1940s: 63 seats. The Republicans also gained seats in the Senate and are in strong position to take control of that body in two years. In state legislatures, the GOP gained more than 675 seats, far more than in the landslide of 1994.

“Most importantly, Steele wins,” Idaho GOP chairman Norm Semanko said in a statement of support. He characterized Steele’s problems as a conflict with the establishment wing of the Republican Party.

Steele, too, put forward his party’s winning electoral record as he wooed RNC members.

“I come to my bosses with a record that only you can judge, based upon directions you made clear to me from the very beginning,” Steele said in a message Monday night.

Steele acknowledged he had “stumbled along the way,” but said that he had accounted for his shortcomings. “No excuses. No lies. No hidden agenda,” he said.

The chairman’s critics argue that the Republican Party succeeded in 2010 in spite of Steele – and could have won even more congressional seats if the RNC had been firing on all cylinders. Outside groups were able to take up some of the slack, but as the 2012 presidential race launches, a fully functional RNC is essential, they add.

Complicating matters is Steele’s status as the RNC’s first black chairman – particularly significant for a party that has long sought to woo Africa-American voters.

Perhaps the most outrageous moment in Steele’s term was the revelation that the RNC had made a $2,000 reimbursement for a visit to a lesbian bondage club in West Hollywood, Calif., earlier this year. Steele himself was not at the club and fired the staffer involved, but the PR damage was done.

More consequential has been the party’s chronic money woes since Steele took over in early 2009. In a four-page letter written last month upon his resignation as RNC political director, Gentry Collins laid the blame for the financial problems at Steele’s feet, and detailed how the party’s effort in last month’s elections was curtailed. Among the consequences, he wrote, the RNC was unable to mount an independent expenditure ad campaign on behalf of GOP candidates, turnout efforts were left unfunded, and direct contributions to candidates were slashed.

Other party committees and outside groups took up the slack, but the hole in the middle of the party apparatus only grows in importance as the presidential race gears up.

“We enter the 2012 presidential cycle with 100 percent of the RNC’s $15 million in lines of credit tapped out, and unpaid bills likely to add millions to that,” Mr. Collins wrote.

Before Steele’s announcement, five prominent Republicans – including Collins – had already thrown their hats in the ring. Also running are Saul Anuzis, Michigan GOP committeeman and former Michigan party chair; Wisconsin GOP chairman Reince Priebus, who had served as RNC general counsel under Steele until recently; Ann Wagner of Wisconsin, former co-chairwoman of the RNC; and Maria Cino, a longtime Republican operative.

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