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Are Michael Steele's days numbered?

By Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, November 20, 2010; 3:48 PM

Michael Steele's days as chairman of the Republican National Committee appear to be numbered. The real questions about his eventual departure may be when it will take place and how messy it will be.

The embattled chairman has not said whether he intends to seek another term leading the RNC. Steele has many allies within the tight world of the 168-member national committee, but his support has eroded. No one can say with certainty where things stand, but RNC watchers who are no friends of Steele doubt that he has the votes to win reelection.

Among Republicans outside the RNC, Steele's credibility is lower than for any other recent chairman. But are his critics shrewd enough to help engineer a smooth transition to another chairman and a soft landing for Steele? Or will their public pressure force Steele, for the sake of his pride and ego, to stand firm and fight a battle the party doesn't need right now?

Steele has attributes that made him an attractive choice for leader after the beating Republicans took in 2008. He is the first African American to lead a party that has struggled for decades to improve its standing in the minority community. He is certainly personable, and he has an engaging (if undisciplined) style of communicating.

But his tenure has produced a combination of personal gaffes and structural problems that, now that the 2010 campaign is over, have led some of the GOP's leading politicians to call for a change in leadership - or to fret in an increasingly public way about the state of the committee.

In the past week, Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, chairman of the Republican Governors Association (RGA) and a former RNC chairman, reiterated his belief that the national committee needs a new leader. And Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, a likely 2012 presidential candidate, said he was concerned about reports critical of the RNC's performance under Steele, though he stopped short of calling for the chairman to step aside.

The RNC's political director, Gentry Collins, resigned with a blast at Steele's management - a five-page letter detailing the financial and political shortcomings of the committee this fall. The letter added up to a devastating portrait of the RNC's problems, most significantly the failure to fund a robust get-out-the-vote operation.

Collins, pointing to an outside study, argued that these shortcomings may have cost Republicans two Senate seats, and he said he would add three governor races to that list. Properly managed and better funded, he claimed, the RNC could have put an additional 21 congressional districts into serious competition.

Others can dispute the particulars, but the broader indictment - that Steele's tenure has left the national committee in a far weakened position - is something that Republicans have been complaining about for many months.

Others stepped in to fill the void left by the RNC, most notably Barbour's RGA, which spent about $100 million on campaigns (and which is not bound by the same fundraising limits that govern the national party). But with 37 gubernatorial races this year, the RGA needed to step up. In 2012, however, there will be only 11 gubernatorial races, few in major presidential battlegrounds.

On Friday, Steele issued his own memo, trumpeting the historic Republican victories this month and claiming the RNC's share of credit. He argued that it was the RNC that helped achieve "what was, by far, the greatest turnout by any party in any midterm election in U.S. history."

That assertion actually underscores what political strategists long have known - that the political environment counts for far more than a well-organized ground game. There was a surge in Republican turnout, whether the RNC had anything to do with it or not. Would it have been larger with a more effective national committee? Perhaps.

But that doesn't negate the fact that Republicans can ill afford to go through the next two years with an RNC that requires workarounds by all other segments of the party's coalition.

The next Republican presidential nominee needs a national committee operating far more efficiently.

"Sadly, if left on its current path, the RNC will not be a productive force in the 2012 campaign to deny President Obama a second term, retain our House majority and elect a Senate majority," Collins said in his memo.

Every Republican with a serious chance of winning the presidential nomination must doubt, at this point, that the committee under Steele will have the party machinery in shape for the general election. That's a worrisome way to begin the presidential cycle and one reason Republicans such as Barbour are speaking out.

Both parties will count on outside help in 2012, but party leaders on both sides know that isn't enough. A presidential nominee needs the kind of tight coordination that can only come between the national committee and the nominee's campaign operation. "Nobody can do what the RNC can do in a presidential year," said a former committee official and veteran of many presidential campaigns.

Steele's memo did not directly refute some of the criticisms outlined by his political director, but it renewed speculation that he is digging in and preparing to run for a second term when the committee meets in mid-January to vote on its chairman. It is just as plausible that the memo was an effort by Steele to shape his own legacy as he prepares to move on.

Still, it may take more than potshots from prominent Republicans to prompt the independent-minded Steele to step aside. It probably will require a careful and concerted move by other party leaders, perhaps led by Republican governors, to bring that about.

Steele is liked personally by many of the same Republicans who believe he has left the national committee in terrible shape financially and politically. Were he to step aside, they no doubt would find much reason to laud his service.

Until he makes a move toward the exit, however, he will be subjected to the kind of harsh criticism and second-guessing that has intensified this month despite the party's big victories this fall.

And until Steele's detractors find either a unifying replacement, an exit strategy for the chairman or both, the party could find itself in a messy contest come January.

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