Grumbling Abounds at the RNC, But Steele Could Still Win

by Brian Bolduc

Grumbling about Michael Steele is increasing across the Republican National Committee, but the chairman still has his advocates, several members tell National Review Online

Over the past two years, Steele’s numerous gaffes have embarrassed members, yet many of them are willing to look past them. “When he started out, did he say some things that made me cringe? Yeah,” says John Frey, a committeeman from Connecticut and supporter of Steele. “He’s entitled to a learning curve.”

Supporters of Steele’s rivals are similarly sympathetic. Dick Wadhams, chairman of the Colorado Republican Party and an announced backer of Saul Anuzis, tells NRO, “I like [Steele] and I feel badly that he’s in this position.”

The more serious charge against him, however, is financial mismanagement. According to the party’s latest filing with the Federal Elections Commission, the Grand Old Party has $1.9 million in cash on hand — and $15 million in debt. 

But Steele’s enthusiasts are sanguine about the RNC’s balance sheet. Instead, they’re focused on the fact that they just won control of the House of Representatives. “We won big,” says Errol Galt, the committeeman from Montana and a supporter of Steele. The more nuanced among them also point to the victories in 2009 — before the public had turned decisively against President Obama — and attribute these triumphs in part to Steele. “The Scott Brown race: The Republican organizations in all 50 states were making calls for him. That was all Michael’s doing,” says Pat Longo, a committeewoman from Connecticut and one of Steele’s champions.

Nevertheless, the discontent is real. One committeeman tells NRO that longtime major donors didn’t contribute to the RNC this year because the chairman never reached out to them. And though Steele did raise more money than expected in 2009, he also spent more than he raised, leading to what the Hill dubbed the RNC’s worst cash flow in a decade. 

Steele’s opponents seem to have settled on a rationale for his ouster. “In 2010, the Republicans were missing someone who had the ability to go out and be the spokesperson for the party,” says Mark Fahleson, chairman of the Nebraska Republican party. “What we need for 2012 — we’ll have John Boehner as our Speaker and our presidential candidates — is someone who can understand and raise money; it’s more of a tactical job.”

At this point, the opposition hasn’t coalesced around a single candidate — mostly because members aren’t sure if other challengers will emerge. “I’m keeping my powder dry,” says William Deschamps, chairman of the Montana Republican party, who still prefers Steele.

Respect for Steele’s two declared opponents, Saul Anuzis and Ann Wagner, runs high. That said, if other potential challengers — such as Gentry Collins and or Mike Duncan — enter the race, it’ll be hard to distinguish among them. 

Another wrinkle for challengers is that there isn’t much time for campaigning. Chairman Steele knows many of the 168 members well, whereas his challengers have only weeks to meet them and the holidays will interrupt the campaign. Thus, Steele still has a fighting chance.

“I would say he’s the front-runner but I would still give it less than 50-percent probability that he wins,” concludes Pete Ricketts, the committeeman from Nebraska who has yet to pick a candidate to back.

In truth, it’s too early to tell, especially since members are still cleaning up after the election. “I haven’t really committed to anybody,” says Tony Sutton, chairman of the Minnesota Republican party, who’s currently enmeshed in the gubernatorial recount. “I haven’t had time to get into the trenches.”