Surveying the field of RNC race: Priebus out front, but it's anyone's guess

Republican National Chairman Michael S. Steele has often found himself in the spotlight -- and not in a good way. Here's a look at some of his most memorable snafus.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 26, 2010; 11:59 PM

Uncertainty reigns in the race for the chairmanship of the Republican National Committee despite the election being less than a month away.

Conversations with a number of strategists close to the RNC - and its 168 voting members - suggest that none of the six candidates in the running are anywhere close to securing the 85 votes needed to claim the chairmanship.

But two tiers of candidates have begun to emerge, with the top three seen as potential winners and the bottom three regarded as longer shots. Given the number of undecided voters and the unpredictability of the ballot process, though, it's hard to count anyone out at the moment.

Our handicapping of the field at this point is below - ranked in order of likelihood of winning.

First tier

1. Reince Priebus. That the Wisconsin state party chairman is the nominal front-runner to be the next RNC chairman speaks to the insularity of the committee and the relatively low-profile nature of all the candidates in the race - at least those not named Michael Steele.

Priebus has a good story to tell, as Badger State Republicans won the governorship, defeated Sen. Russ Feingold (D) and picked up two House seats under his watch. He is also receiving help rallying votes from a number of influential committee members - including Mississippi committeeman Henry Barbour - and has the most public commitments so far. Priebus added the influential conservative Jim Bopp, an Indiana committeeman, to his side last week as well.

2. (tie) Saul Anuzis. Anuzis, a former chairman of the Michigan Republican Party, is casting himself in much the same way he did when he ran for chairman back in 2009: a blue-state Republican whose knowledge of and comfort level with technology can help the party catch Democrats on that front. Earlier this week, Anuzis won the support of Morton Blackwell, a Virginia committeeman and an influential voice among some conservatives on the RNC.

2. (tie) Ann Wagner. Wagner's resume is impressive - former chair of the Missouri Republican party, ambassador to Luxembourg - but what really recommends her to the committee and its members is her fundraising capacity. In announcing his endorsement of her candidacy, former U.N. ambassador and potential 2012 presidential candidate John Bolton praised Wagner's "long track record of raising money and winning elections."

Wagner also has some history with the RNC, having served as co-chair of the committee for several years in the early days of the Bush administration.

Second tier

4. Michael Steele. We've written before about the difficulties the current chairman has in trying to win a second term. Steele has 12 announced backers and probably double that amount in overall support. The question is whether, after an obligatory vote for him on the first ballot, those people stick with Steele for as long as he stays in the race or jump ship to another contender.

Steele's lone path to victory appears to be a fractured final vote in which two other candidates split the anti-incumbent vote and allow him to shoot the gap. But that's a thin thread on which to hang a second-term bid.

5. Maria Cino. Cino, who ran the 2008 Republican National Convention and has served in a variety of high-level posts within the GOP, is the choice of a handful of well-known political operatives and pols. (Witness the fundraiser held in support of her candidacy by former vice president Dick Cheney and former RNC chairman Ed Gillespie.)

Cino's problem is that political strategists don't decide the identity of the chairman and the committeemen, and women who do vote don't entirely like or trust many of the establishment figures within the party. After eight years of having their chairman picked for them by the George W. Bush White House, it's hard to see the 168 committee members bowing to the establishment's will again.

6. Gentry Collins. The former RNC political director may be remembered as the man who effectively ended Steele's chances at a second term by penning a resignation letter that detailed the fundraising (and other) foibles of the committee. But Collins has struggled to extricate himself from the Steele wreckage he helped cause with that letter.

And, like Cino, Collins struggles under the perception that he is just one more professional political operative trying to tell the 168 committee members what to do. Collins's grass-roots organizing abilities, which are considerable and important, could make him an attractive candidate, but he has yet to find a way to sell members on his potential.

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