Committee staffers spent time after the November elections issuing memos touting the party's political spending and success and refuting Collins' accusations. But Steele left the country for several weeks after Election Day, and even his closest supporters were unaware of his decision until the last minute.
Collins was only the first of several former Steele allies to defect. Collins quit his position and, on Monday, announced he would run for Steele's post. Steele's top ally on the committee during the 2009 campaign, Wisconsin Republican Party chairman Reince Priebus, is also running for chairman.
Several other candidates are also seeking to replace the outgoing chairman. Former Michigan Republican Party chairman Saul Anuzis, who finished third in the chairman's race in 2009, is running again, as are former RNC co-chairman Ann Wagner and former Bush administration official Maria Cino. Cino announced her candidacy on Sunday.
The candidates spent most of the race's first public forum stressing their distance from Steele and the different approach they would take. On Monday, those candidates welcomed Steele to what is sure to be a rough and tumble contest.
"Chairman Steele is his own man and he has made up his mind that he will run. Every day, I continue to show the Members of the Committee that I am the best option on the field. I bring a history of accomplishment, working with the Committee and its Members and I have the plans and the know-how to get the RNC back on track and running successfully," Priebus said.
"I look forward to him joining the debate on what the future of the RNC should look like," Anuzis said.
The call was organized outside official channels, using Steele's private Gmail account. That should have been a hint to those trying to divine Steele's actions; the RNC counsel's office sternly warned committee staffers they could not actively work on behalf of one candidate or another.