RNC's Steele visits U.S. territories, prompting talk of a reelection bid
Wednesday, September 8, 2010; 6:07 PM
For a man hoping to lead his party to major congressional victories in November, Republican National Committee Chairman Michael S. Steele has packed his travel schedule with some unusual destinations in recent weeks: Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.
The itinerary is fueling speculation that Steele is positioning himself to run for a second term as chairman - and concern among some that he may be spending time on that effort instead of on winning midterm elections.
Steele was narrowly elected chairman by the RNC's 168 members in January 2009. He won with a large measure of help from the U.S. territories, which, thanks to the structure of the RNC, each carry as much voting clout as any of the 50 states.
So some see Steele's recent travel as a signal that he is preparing for another run in January - at a time when they'd rather see him making fundraising calls and visiting the states where control of the House and the Senate is at stake.
"Trips to the territories are less defensible in terms of election dynamics than trips around the country," said David Norcross, a former RNC member who has been critical of the committee's fundraising efforts. "If he's not on the phone, he should get on the phone."
A half-dozen RNC members also offered harsh assessments of the chairman's travels and fundraising efforts, but none would speak on the record.
Steele's defenders said it is hard to criticize his performance given that the party is cruising toward a banner day on Nov. 2.
"When we win the Obama seat and the governor's mansion, which I think we're going to do here in Illinois, and win the statehouse and pick up three congressional seats, a great deal of credit is going to go to Michael Steele," said Pat Brady, chairman of the Illinois GOP and a longtime Steele supporter. "If Illinois is my barometer, then he's been tremendously successful."
Steele was in Guam on Wednesday and not available for an interview, but he told a reporter this week in Hawaii, where he was campaigning for Republican candidates, that his trip there had "nothing to do" with his winning reelection.
His spokesman, Doug Heye, said the chairman traveled to the territories to raise money for candidates and the RNC. He noted that Steele was in the Caribbean for a "day and a half" and will be in the Pacific for a similarly short stint, returning home Thursday morning.
Heye also pointed out that under Steele, the committee has increased its donor numbers by more than 400,000. On Wednesday, the chairman will launch a 48-state bus tour to energize voters and raise money for congressional elections. And he has led an effort to build the party's largest ground operation ever, featuring 310 "victory centers" in 44 states with more than 300 paid staff members.
But Steele has weathered his share of gaffes and controversies, including lavish spending and, most recently, public statements criticizing military action in Afghanistan.
Heye declined to comment on whether Steele will seek reelection in January.
"I can tell you that in this building, we're focused on Nov. 2," he said. "Anything that happens after that, we'll focus on after Nov. 2."
Such declarations haven't stopped speculation among RNC members. Some say they're surprised at the possibility of a reelection bid, given Steele's scandal-plagued tenure; but many also say it will be difficult to argue that he didn't get the job - winning elections - done.
"I assume we're going to do very well in November," said one committee member who spoke on the condition of anonymity. "That certainly doesn't hurt his chances. But it's kind of early for us to be focused on that. If you're going to run for RNC chairman during the campaign, you're going to hurt yourself."
Holland Redfield, an RNC member from the Virgin Islands, said Steele never mentioned plans to seek reelection during his visit last month. But Redfield said he would support Steele again if he sought a second term.
"His main objective down here was to live up to the commitment made to the territories, and the territories took him over the top," Redfield said. "This is the first chairman who has identified the importance of the territories. There is something called heavy lifting, and this chairman does heavy lifting."