Nearing the end of a turbulent two-year term, Mr. Steele faced respectful but pointed attacks from the challengers, who repeatedly referred to an RNC debt of more than $20 million, an alienated donor base, and underfunded turnout efforts in the 2010 election.
Steele fired back in self-defense, arguing that he brought the party back from being an “endangered species,” as a Time magazine cover put it in May 2009, to winning elections again – culminating in a resounding midterm success last November.
“I’m a glass-half-full kind of guy,” Steele said. “I don’t see the crisis as some may see it. I don’t see it as something where the alarm bells go off and you start throwing and remaking and blowing up, but what you do is get down to the burdensome work of building."
Usually, the election of a national party chair barely gets much public notice. But Steele’s tenure has been so rocky, with verbal gaffes, financial woes, and widely reported mismanagement, that the political world is watching closely. The party did turn in an exceptional performance in the November midterms, but Steele critics say that’s only because outside groups and other party bodies, such as the Republican Governors Association, filled in the gaps.
Especially at the start of a presidential election cycle, that model is inadequate, say GOP strategists.
“Outside organizations can only do so much to fund turnout efforts,” says Republican pollster Whit Ayres. “And the lack of funding for the 72-hour turnout program was a significant problem for Republican candidates nationally in this last election.”
It’s “extraordinarily important” that the RNC chairman be competent in a broad range of areas, Mr. Ayres says. The top three: fundraising, managing a large and complex organization, and being an effective spokesman for the party.
At the debate Monday, Steele talked about a more inclusive approach to the Republican Party than the other candidates, referring not just to race but also points of view. He objected to the use of litmus tests for party affiliation, while the others reached for measures of “Republicanness.” One challenger, former Michigan GOP chair Saul Anuzis, suggested that agreement on issues 80 percent of the time is good enough.
The fact that Steele is the first black chairman of a party anxious for more minority votes and involvement complicates the Jan. 14 party election. He is being challenged by two men and two women, all white. The party has never had a woman chair (though it always, under party rules, has a woman co-chair) and so the election of a woman to the top spot might ease the awkwardness of tossing out Steele.
Steele referred to the GOP as the “party of Lincoln,” a common citation by Steele and an allusion to President Lincoln’s ending of slavery. (It also pushes back on President Obama’s reverence for Lincoln; he has a bust of the 16th president in the Oval Office.) And he made a direct plea to the party to keep reaching out to minorities.
“When we stop talking to our friends in the Latino community and the African-American community, and when we stop engaging with individuals and we make assumptions about, well, they don't vote for us anyway, that's when we really start to lose,” Steele said. “And going forward we will lose big if we lose sight of the fact that America is not the America of the 1950s and the 1960s or even the 1990s. It's a very different day.”
Steele facing uphill battle?
Still, Steele appears to face an uphill battle to keep his job. After a canvass of the Republican National Committee’s 168 members, the only votes that count in this election, the news site Politico reported Monday that Steele does not appear able to reach the majority vote needed to win.
Wisconsin Republican Party chairman Reince Priebus is the frontrunner, according to Politico. But his election is nowhere near a done deal. Mr. Priebus was once a close associate of Steele’s; he ran Steele’s campaign for chairman, then served as general counsel to the RNC under Steele. Another RNC member, Connecticut GOP chairman Chris Healy, sent out an e-mail last week to fellow committee members taking Priebus to task for defending Steele until he decided to run for the post himself.
Aside from Priebus, Mr. Anuzis (who ran against Steele two years ago), and Ms. Wagner, the other chlalenger is Maria Cino, a longtime party operative and former Bush administration official.