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Michael Steele's many blunders led to defeat in RNC chair reelection campaign

By Perry Bacon Jr.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 14, 2011; 7:13 PM

Republicans emerged from a 2008 electoral drubbing not only lacking a telegenic spokesman for the party but virtually any major officials who were not white, a major void after the election of the nation's first black president. Michael Steele seemed like the right man at the right time: an African-American Republican who loved going on television.

But instead of turning into a solution for the GOP, critics say Steele blundered so many times in his first few months as chairman of the Republican National Committee that party officials openly considered replacing him well before the first quarter of his two-year tenure had ended.

Republicans completed the dumping of Steele on Friday, voting out the party's first-ever black chairman.

His reelection defeat was widely anticipated but still an unusual moment in American politics: a party removing its chairman after winning historic victories with him at the helm. Despite the wins, his tenure may be best remembered for the committee paying for an evening at a bondage-themed Hollywood night club for potential donors, Steele's feud with conservative commentator Rush Limbaugh and his declaration that the war in Afghanistan was one of "Obama's choosing."

"I hope you all appreciate the legacy we leave. Despite the noise, despite the difficulties, we won," a weary-looking Steele said Friday in his speech at National Harbor in Prince George's County as he withdrew from contention for the chairman's post.

For Steele, the defeat ends his time in a place he had long coveted: a high-profile job in national politics. The D.C. native, who was lieutenant governor of Maryland from 2003 to 2007, ran unsuccessfully for the U.S. Senate in 2006 and decided against a run for party chairman the next year.

When they elected him in January 2009, Republicans considered Steele's charisma and eagerness to communicate to be assets in a party whose main leaders were figures such as Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), a dry speaker.

But Steele had never before had his words so closely scrutinized. The party chairman's interviews often turned into political disasters, such when he played down the influence of Limbaugh - leading to a public feud with the talk show host - and mused about GOP senators being challenged in primaries.

His tenure was also dramatically affected by an unexpected development: the tea party movement.

In his successful RNC campaign, Steele had pledged to reinvent the party in his image. With Steele leading it, he touted a Republican Party that would campaign in urban, Democratic areas all across the country, wooing young and minority voters who had overwhelmingly backed Obama in 2008.

But by the middle of 2009, Republicans had found their voice: conservative activists flooding town hall meetings all over the country to protest President Obama's health-care reform plan. Other party officials still wanted to expand the base and reach of the party, as Steele sought to, but that quickly turned into a secondary priority to rallying the nearly all-white, mostly older, tea party activists, many of whom were disaffected Republicans.

Steele quickly aligned himself with the tea party activists, but their energy and the growing dissatisfaction among Republicans and independents with Obama seemed to render much of Steele's message of change for the GOP irrelevant.

By the end of 2009, Republican gubernatorial candidates in New Jersey and Virginia won major victories by rallying the traditional coalition of voters who had long elected Republicans.

Ahead of the 2010 elections, sensing the chances for a big victory, GOP leaders in Congress simply wanted a party chairman who could raise money and keep attention focused on the troubles of congressional Democrats.

Never known as a strong fundraiser and plagued by a lack of confidence in his leadership, Steele struggled to raise money for the GOP. Party operatives instead built outside fundraising operations, often collecting checks from people who were shunning Steele's RNC.

Meanwhile, the RNC continued to make mistakes. In March, the committee's campaign finance reports showed a low-level aide authorized spending $2,000 for potential donors to visit a bondage-themed night club in Hollywood. Three months later, Steele publicly questioned the continued presence of U.S. troops in Afghanistan, even as the majority of congressional Republicans back the war effort there.

By last month, when Steele declared he would run for reelection, he had almost no chance of winning. The committee's staff was fleeing after the election, anticipating Steele's departure, and one of his top operatives, Gentry Collins, publicly blasted Steele for wasting the party's money. The RNC ended 2010 with a record $20 million debt.

In choosing to run a long-shot campaign for a second two-year term as chairman, Steele admitted he was a clear underdog.

Steele has not said what he will do in his future, but the role as the GOP's most prominent minority figure may no longer be open to him. Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.), who is Cuban-American, and Rep. Tim Scott (S.C.), who is black, won in 2010 and are likely to emerge as key GOP figures.

The 6-foot-4 Steele, known for his bold pinstripe suits, had relished the attention that came with being party chairman, asking "How do you like me now?" in the press conference after he won in 2009.

He seemed aware Friday that, for now, his moment is over.

"Thank you for the opportunity to serve and to lead," he said Friday, "and now I exit, stage right."

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