Updated at 8:26 a.m. on December 14.
Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele will seek a second two-year term, he told committee members on Monday, further scrambling a campaign that has already attracted several candidates hungry to replace the incumbent.
"We fired Pelosi, so now we must increase our resources and strengthen ourselves further at the grassroots level," Steele said Monday during a private conference call with the committee's 168 voting members. "The path to 2012 and 270 electoral votes will require leadership."
"I wanted to tonight come to you, my bosses, as your employee with a record that only you can judge, based upon directions you made clear to me from the very beginning," Steele said. "Yes, I have stumbled along the way, but have always accounted to each of you for such shortcomings. I've made no excuses. I've told no lies. I have no hidden agenda.
"Going forward, I ask for your support and your vote for a second term. I believe our work is not done, and my commitment has not ended."
Steele's announcement throws the contest into flux. The vast bulk of the 168 members of the RNC have declined to publicly support any of the candidates, and Steele himself can only count on about one-quarter of committee members for support, according to those counting votes both on his behalf and in hopes of defeating him.
He will spend the next month defending his tenure to members across the country. But while he will focus on major gains Republicans made in the midterm elections, Steele will have to answer other questions.
Steele won the chairmanship in 2009 after besting an incumbent chairman and several long-time committee members. His path to reelection will be difficult after two years marked by gaffes, both major and minor, thrust him unwillingly into the spotlight.
Steele has faced grumbling from committee members and conservative activists for comments suggesting abortion was an individual choice; saying his party wasn't ready to lead; and implying that criticism of his time in office had to do with the fact that he is African American. He had to apologize to radio host Rush Limbaugh for calling Limbaugh's show "incendiary" and "ugly," and he defended himself and fired staff for a post-fundraiser party at a risque Los Angeles nightclub.
Perhaps most damaging, Steele has been accused of allowing the party's major donor program to drastically erode. While small-dollar fundraising has grown, many of those who traditionally wrote five-figure checks felt neglected. That, in turn, hurt the committee's political chances, Steele critics said.
But Steele allies pointed to major gains the party has made during his tenure. Steele's political team invested millions in governors races in Virginia and New Jersey in 2009, giving Republicans hope they could win even when President Obama maintained high approval ratings.
In November, Republicans won back the House after the RNC spent millions on voter turnout efforts. But even that achievement came amid controversy. Several state party chairmen said they had not received the amount of funding they were initially promised, and RNC political director Gentry Collins penned a scathing memo accusing Steele of leaving Democratic seats on the table by failing to fully fund turnout programs.
"It disturbs me to no end to hear people characterize our efforts... in some negative way," Steele told RNC members Monday night.
Committee staffers spent time after the November elections issuing memos touting the party's political spending and success and refuting Collins's 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.