NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. — Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele faces what amounts to his swan song on Friday as the very activists who first elected him prepare to decide who will steer the party's top political apparatus into the 2012 presidential election. After two years that contrasted historic Republican wins with acrimonious clashes between Steele and members of the national committee, all indications suggest Steele, seeking a second two-year term, will not be re-elected.
And yet Steele remains, to the media, the dominant figure at a biennial reorganization of the RNC. He has shown little to no indication he will give up without fighting to keep his job, vowing both never to drop out of the race and to defend his two-year tenure as one of the most successful electoral periods in Republican Party history.
Among the RNC's 168 members, who will make their decision on a new chairman Friday, Steele's physical presence looms large, but his relevance is waning. He roams the halls at a conference center just south of Washington—ironically a conference center Steele helped create as Maryland's lieutenant governor—greeting members with warm smiles and embraces, even as most of those members, well over a majority, plan on voting for one of the four other candidates vying to replace Steele.
From high-profile gaffes to fundraising woes that threaten the party's chances to win future elections, Steele's tenure has been marked by a head-slapping frustration among members of a committee more acclimated to operating below the national consciousness than to appearing on the front pages with frequency.
"Mike is a very nice guy, and I think he tried very hard," said Chris Healy, chairman of the Connecticut Republican Party. "But unfortunately the record is what it is, and the needs and the goals of the next 16 months are going to require something a little different, something more down in the trenches as opposed to being more in front of the lights."
One candidate, ironically the man once considered Steele's closest ally among committee members, has emerged as a front-runner to take the top job. Wisconsin Republican Party Chairman Reince Priebus has collected 40 public endorsements, nearly halfway to the 85 a candidate needs to win election. That is far ahead of the number of votes collected by Steele, former Michigan Republican Party Chairman Saul Anuzis, former RNC Co-Chairman Ann Wagner or former Bush administration official Maria Cino.
Still, many members have not made their choice for chairman public, throwing some doubt on the outcome of the race's first ballot. Several Steele supporters are among those who have kept quiet, and observers and committee members keeping their own tallies expect Steele and Priebus to finish the first round in close proximity, with somewhere around 45 to 50 votes each. Anuzis is expected to eke out a third-place finish, somewhere in the mid-twenties, with Wagner and Cino close behind.
Because a majority is required to elect a chairman, candidates are asking members to commit to backing them as second and third choices. Because no candidate is required to drop out of the race at any point, even if they finish in last place, voters who decide to back a different candidate on subsequent ballots will decide which candidate becomes the next chairman of the RNC.
With just hours to go, the campaigning is fast and furious. On their way to an opening reception, Anuzis cornered Louisiana GOP Chairman Roger Villerie, an uncommitted voter. "Some are sending me diamonds, others are sending me gold. And you're only sending me tweets!" Villerie joked, referring to Anuzis's reputation as a new media devotee.
Steele's bloc is likely to be the first to crumble. It is extraordinarily rare for an incumbent to be anyone's second choice, and many Steele voters have given hints to other candidates they will not stick with their initial choice after the first ballot. The real question that hangs in the air at National Harbor then becomes whether Steele voters feel, as the chairman does, scorned by their former ally Priebus.
The other candidates have set out to cast Priebus as the overwhelming front-runner, the pseudo-incumbent who stands as the heir apparent to Steele's legacy. That strategy serves two purposes: It saddles Priebus with what may be unnaturally high expectations while simultaneously tying him to a chairman most voters have already decided to vote against, thanks to a two-year legacy of fundraising woes and ill-advised statements. If Priebus falls short of expectations, or if he cannot shake the taint of an association with Steele, Priebus could suddenly find himself vulnerable.
The bloc of Steele voters will prove decisive in determining the final outcome. If they decide Priebus has turned their back on them and they vote with another candidate, Priebus will suddenly face an opposition that could unify against him. His ceiling—his vote-getting potential—will become starkly, perhaps insurmountably, evident.
And yet those one-time Steele backers are one of Priebus's major assets. His hallmark has been solid relations with both pro- and anti-Steele committee members, and he took great pains in distancing himself from the chairman in a manner he hopes has not wounded too many feelings. If those relationships remain unbruised, Priebus would win an influx of Steele voters on the second ballot. Serious momentum, once established in a multi-ballot election, is rarely halted. With support from the Steele bloc, Priebus could put the contest away early.
If he is unable to build that momentum, Priebus's challengers will have to fight amongst themselves to determine who is most likely to defeat him. Anuzis has deep personal relationships with a large majority of the committee, an often-overlooked strength in such an insular electorate. He ran in 2009, finishing in third place, and he virtually never stopped running. Many believe Anuzis is the obvious candidate to emerge as the alternative to a sinking Steele and a stagnant Priebus.
Wagner, who served on the committee for many years early in the last decade, has fewer allies. Cino has the most prominent public supporter among non-committee members in newly-installed House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, who held a reception for RNC members on Wednesday evening. Still, she only began gaining traction among RNC members late in the race, raising questions about her long-term viability.
Yet both women have an unexpected factor working against them. An obscure rule of the national committee requires the chairman of the national party to be of the opposite gender of the co-chairman, the committee's number two, but largely ceremonial, post. This year, two women—current Co-Chairwoman Jan Larimer and RNC Secretary Sharon Day—are running aggressive campaigns for the post. Those two will not be eligible to run if either Cino or Wagner wins the chairmanship. Only one man, Villerie, is seeking the job in case Cino or Wagner wins; Villerie is running what many members describe as a lackluster race.
Strategists and supporters of both female chair candidates acknowledge that many committee members are closer with Larimer or Day than with any of the chairman candidates. That provides committee members an incentive to vote for a male candidate if they feel passionately about one of the female co-chair candidates. Wagner has acknowledged to co-chairman candidates that their bids hurt her chances.
Regardless of who wins, the next RNC chairman will inherit a committee beset by debt and in need of an immediate financial boost. Internal documents obtained by The Hotline show the party faced more than $21.8 million in outstanding debt as of December 31. Much of that debt is in the form of lines of credit, the balance of which will come due in short order. The RNC owes a $5 million payment on February 28, and another $5 million payment on June 30. The debt is unprecedented in the history of the RNC.
The new chairman will also face almost immediate decisions on the party's 2012 presidential convention, set to be held in Tampa. Some members are angry over the amount of money that has already been spent on the gathering: more than $162,000, according to internal documents. It's the earliest so much money has been spent on a convention; it includes more than $66,000 in salaries paid to one of Steele's closest confidants, and more than $65,000 on travel, transportation and hotels.
"The RNC carries a significant debt which needs to be retired as quickly as possible, and there's a need for every level donor program, from small-dollar direct response programs to major donor programs, to move into full tilt immediately," said Ron Nehring, the chairman of the California Republican Party and a candidate for RNC treasurer who is neutral in the chairman's race. "I think the members are aware [of that]."
Every candidate has promised to erase that debt, which threatens to hinder the party's chances at beating President Obama in 2012. Whichever candidate is best able to convince members he or she can overcome early obstacles will be in the best position when voters cast their ballots on Friday—no matter how many rounds of voting it takes. But their first challenge will be to mitigate the hard feelings that have developed over two rancorous years, to ensure that the eventual winner earns more than the Pyrrhic victory Steele's term has proven to be.