Has Michael Steele helped or hurt the GOP?
Saturday, November 13, 2010; 12:01 AM
As Republican celebrations of their midterm victories give way to plans to take back the White House in 2012, party leaders are asking themselves this question: Did the GOP succeed in last week's elections because of its charismatic but controversial chairman or in spite of him?
Steele's tenure has been marred by a string of gaffes and a record of lavish spending. Even so, he claims credit for the party's electoral successes as he lays the foundation for a run for another term as chairman. Since the election, though, many of the GOP's most prominent voices have showered little or no praise on Steele.
A flurry of public calls from leading Republicans this week for new leadership at the RNC and moves by party insiders to build a coalition aimed at disposing of Steele could be the opening volleys of a nasty political fight. In one corner: the GOP's top-ranking African American. In the other: a Republican establishment apparently determined to remove him from office.
The decision makers in this fight are the 168 RNC members whose votes at the party's winter meeting in January will determine Steele's fate. His aides say he has as many as 60 of the 85 votes needed to win. However, a sizable bloc of committee members - who are mostly state committeemen and local party leaders - have settled against Steele, while many others are undecided, according to Steele supporters and detractors.
Steele and other potential challengers are expected to officially declare by Thanksgiving whether they are in or out of the race.
"Maybe Michael Steele can roll the dice and ... capture a victory, and maybe not," said Katon Dawson, a top party operative from South Carolina who lost to Steele in the chairman's race last year. "I'm sure he is trying to accumulate the number of votes that he needs to get there, but in this climate that will be very difficult. These races are brutal. They are mean. They are tough."
The list of reasons Steele is criticized is long: Detractors say the RNC has misspent millions of dollars and failed to properly report its debt; they also point to numerous controversies that have rocked the committee under Steele, including an incident this year in which $2,000 in RNC money was spent at a bondage-themed strip club in California.
(Steele has also drawn fire for his propensity for gaffes, including his suggestion over the summer that the war in Afghanistan might not be winnable.)
Steele has been making his own case for a second term in a round of interviews focused on the GOP's big wins. He acknowledged that there may have been some bumps in the beginning but said he spent the party's money wisely and "reaped the benefits of those investments by winning elections."
"Everybody has a learning curve, and clearly, I had mine," Steele told reporters. "Going from coming in and being in a position publicly to look at the party, look at politics and look at the trend lines in the country and analyze them is one thing, but then being chairman of the party and having to maybe not express so vocally your views on some of these issues is another. You learn that."