By Krissah Thompson
Washington Post Staff Writer
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."
In a separate interview with NPR's Michel Martin, Steele argued that his critics have been trying to push him out since he won the position. "They don't want me in this job, to put it rather bluntly," he said. "That's been a concerted effort since I got the job. But I pay no nevermind to that. My mission as charged to me by the 168 individuals who voted for me is to go out and raise money.
"I have won more elections [than] any chairman since 1938. In fact, none of my predecessors have been able to put together the kind of combination of wins, and it's because we tried to make the party more grass-roots oriented. Not top-down but bottom-up. We developed relationships with tea party activists and like-minded individuals out there and Democrats and independents out there to try to build a new governing coalition for our party."
Steele also pointed to the dozens of African Americans who ran for Congress as Republicans this year. Two were elected.
The party's gains and a sensitivity to pushing out the GOP's first black chairman have helped Steele, said Andra Gillespie, a professor of political science at Emory University. "The term is now up. ... This would probably be a natural breaking point," she said. "If Steele survives, it's because he has done a good job currying favor with the unknown foot soldiers at the top of the state and local RNCs."
He has indeed garnered support among local leaders - even reaching the outlying territories, which account for about 10 percent of the committee's total voters. Committee members from Guam, Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands and other islands have received attention from Steele through personal visits or party contributions.
Steele also won praise for his work in the Virginia gubernatorial race, won by Republican Robert F. McDonnell, who benefited from an RNC investment of more than $9 million in the state. And the chairman was one of the first national GOP leaders to sit down with organizers of the tea party movement; more recently, Steele toured the country in a big red bus in recent weeks, visiting more than 100 cities and towns in a quest to "fire" House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D).
Former Alaska governor Sarah Palin, who has also been embraced by the tea party, appeared on the tour with Steele, and the Baltimore Sun suggested she might back his candidacy - giving him a big-name boost.
Steele seems to need the outside help. Many in the party believe his candidacy is weak. If he is unable to win outright on the first ballot, he will likely lose supporters quickly and be forced to bow out.
Henry Barbour, a committee member from Mississippi and the nephew of that state's governor, Haley Barbour, has approached Reince Priebus about the possibility of challenging the incumbent early next year.
Priebus served as the chairman of Steele's first run for chairman in 2009. This year, as chairman of the Wisconsin Republican Party, he helped the GOP win the governorship, a Senate seat, two House seats and seize control of both the state House and Senate last Tuesday.
Priebus is not commenting on the reports, and those close to him said he is not actively organizing for such a bid.
Several other members interested in becoming chairman have begun calling around to gauge support for their candidacies. Anuzis, a Republican leader from Michigan, like Dawson, ran and lost against Steele last year.
"We need someone to make the trains run on time and raise the money so that the party can do the fundamental types of get-out-the-vote, fundamental voter-identification types of programs that are essential for our candidates," Anuzis said. "I do not believe we need another face or another spokesperson for the party. I don't think we necessarily need a high-profile chairman."
Ed Rogers, a longtime Republican strategist who had once expected Steele to remain if the party did well in the midterm election, now wants him to bow out.
"He had a nice run, but he should step aside for somebody that could work more closely with the newly elected Republican leadership," he said. "The Republicans aren't in charge in Washington, and they are going to have to be very artful in terms of the use of the one institution where they do have control."