The story of Michael and Reince: A friendship turned sour

March 27, 2013

During the past several weeks, the last chairman of the Republican National Committee has made it abundantly clear that he doesn't think too highly of its current boss.

"It's not a question of evolving, it's a question of devolving," former RNC chairman Michael Steele said of his relationship with current RNC Chairman Reince Priebus.

Such language would have been unthinkable four years ago, when Steele and Priebus were the closest of allies.


RNC Chairman Reince Priebus, left, and former RNC chairman Michael Steele debate during the party’s chairman’s race in 2010. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

But if you're just tuning in, here's a recap of the mud that's been flying the last few weeks.

* Steele appeared to take a shot at Priebus on Twitter a week and a half ago. "Ask Reince," he tweeted, in response to a conservative activist who voiced skepticism about the GOP establishment's preferred candidates.

* Last week, Priebus alluded to the financial issues that plagued the committee under Steele's watch. He noted that the committee's two credit cards were suspended when he took over as chairman. When pressed about whether he was saying that Steele ruined the party financially, Priebus said: "I’m not going to go there," adding, “I think the numbers speak for themselves.”

* Steele fired back in an interview later that afternoon. “He wasn’t complaining about debt and concerned about debt when I was writing checks to Wisconsin when he was chairman and wanted to win the state legislature, which they did, win the governorship, which they did," said the former chairman.

* Steele has since added that he could "clean" Priebus's "clock." He's also suggested that Priebus also bears responsibility for the financial decisions that were made during his tenure as chairman, because Priebus was one of his closest aides at the time. “I mean, what annoys the heck out of me is that for two years Reince Priebus was in every room I was in, a part of every major decision I made for how much money we would spend, what we would spend that money on, what the priorities of the RNC would be," he said in a Tuesday interview.

In other words, don't expect these two to sit down for beers with one another any time soon.

But things weren't always so prickly. Priebus was Steele's campaign manager and closest adviser leading up to his election as chairman in 2009. Steele appointed Priebus general counsel of the committee, and the two worked closely with one another.

"He was my counsel, my consigliere, my friend," Steele told The Fix.

Steele ran for a second term in 2011, but this time, his onetime ally was his opponent. Priebus, then the chairman of the Wisconsin GOP, defeated Steele and three other candidates to win the chairmanship. He was overwhelmingly reelected to another two-year term earlier this year.

Priebus is currently leading an effort to revamp the party's struggling image that includes more vigorous outreach to minority voters and a push to shorten the presidential primary calendar and limit the number of GOP debates.

His allies contend that talking about the the state of the committee as he inherited it should not be interpreted as a dig at Steele.

"The chairman has laid out an aggressive agenda to change the way the Republican Party operates as we move forward and focus on winning more elections. He explains the financial context of the last cycle in order to explain where we were and where have to go," said RNC spokeswoman Kirsten Kukowski.

Steele's legacy at the committee is a mixed bag. He was at the RNC's helm during the GOP's immensely successful 2010 election that put the party back in control of the House. On the other hand, detractors have pointed to questionable spending decisions under his watch, including a highly publicized expenditure at a risqué nightclub (Steele was not in attendance and the committee insisted he had been unaware of the expense), the use of a private plane, and an extravagant Christmas party.

In a way, Priebus's record has been the opposite of Steele's. The committee was $25 million in debt when Priebus took over in 2011. At the end of the 2012 cycle, it was debt-free. Yet, 2012 was a disappointing electoral year for Republicans, who failed to win back the White House or control of the Senate.

"We won. I handed them 63 House seats, and they lost eight," Steele said. "I handed them the potential to take control of the Senate, and they further lose it."

The rise of outside groups has meant that national party committees don't wield the clout they did in years past. Super PACs, nonprofits and other organizations now spend and raise millions of dollars to advance very specific agendas in elections. Gone are the days when sending a check to the RNC or Democratic National Committee was the only way to contribute to a political effort without donating directly to candidates.

But party chairs remain public faces. And they are judged by what they do or don't accomplish, just like any other politician. So it's not surprising to see Steele defend his record. Nor is it a shocker that Priebus has sought to remind the public about how he's righted a ship that once faced dire financial straits.

"I think Reince is focused on the future, and I have no doubt that Michael Steele wants what's best for the party," said Henry Barbour, who helped run Priebus's campaign for chairman.

Indeed, all politicians are constantly looking ahead. But the story of Priebus and Steele cannot be told without also looking back and realizing that a once thriving relationship has gone sour.

Sean Sullivan has covered national politics for The Washington Post since 2012.
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