ABC News’ Michael Falcone reports:
Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele and his allies will have to navigate a challenging political obstacle course ahead of next month’s party elections, spending time defending his controversial record and outlining a strategy for the next election cycle.
Now that Steele is a candidate for re-election, he is ramping up his campaign efforts. Yesterday he unveiled a Web site, ReelectChairmanSteele.com, and his supporters are working the phones and e-mail in an attempt to rebut speculation that Steele cannot win a second term.
“He already has a number of votes that exponentially overshadow the votes of any other candidate at this point,” said his re-election campaign chairwoman, Holly Hughes, a RNC committeewoman from Michigan. “You’re going to tell me we’re going to kick someone out for giving us more Republican elected officials than we’ve ever had before?”
Hughes was referring to the GOP’s historic midterm election victories in November — one of the talking points Steele and his backers plan to highlight repeatedly between now and Jan. 14 when 168 committee members will gather in Washington to elect the next chairman.
And while Hughes’ assessment of Steele’s initial support may be correct, RNC insiders say it will still be difficult for him to muster a majority of the 168 members in the multiple ballot process that will decide the outcome.
Steele’s critics say if he does not win outright in the first round, he would have little chance of holding on to his job. It’s the same scenario that befell Steele’s predecessor, former RNC Chairman Mike Duncan, who also ran for re-election two years ago. Duncan won the most votes during the first round of balloting, but failed to capture the 85-vote majority and eventually bowed out of the race after the third round, paving the way for Steele’s victory.
“I think Mike Duncan’s a different deal,” Hughes said in an interview with ABC News. “The difference with Michael Steele is he has a record to run on.”
Steele’s challengers and their supporters argue that Steele’s record, which not only includes election victories but also a series of embarrassing gaffes, management mis-steps and fundraising woes, is exactly why he should be voted out.
“I will absolutely not be supporting Michael Steele,” former South Carolina GOP Chair Katon Dawson said in an interview with the Charleston Post and Courier newspaper. “We should thank Chairman Steele for his service and move on.” (Dawson also ruled out a run, himself.)
The conservative publication, the National Review published an editorial on Wednesday titled "Anybody but Steele," and top Republican donors told Politico that they were shocked by the news that Steele was seeking re-election.
Regardless, the race for chairman will play out over the next few weeks in a series of in-person visits by the candidates as well as a flurry of daily phone calls and e-mail messages exchanged by supporters of each of the six chairman hopefuls.
Two former RNC committeemen, David Norcross of New Jersey and Michael Grebe of Wisconsin, both sent messages on Tuesday endorsing one of Steele’s challengers, current Wisconsin GOP Chairman Reince Priebus.
But Steele backers contend that outside endorsements (or non-endorsements) rarely matter. Much more important, they say, are the shifting winds within the committee. Many members may not announce their position until the last-minute.
Priebus, a former Steele confidant who recently resigned as the party’s general counsel, has the support of Mississippi committeeman Henry Barbour, nephew of the state’s Gov. Haley Barbour. Henry blasted out letter yesterday touting Priebus’ “outstanding track record” as leader of the Wisconsin GOP.
“I have talked to several people I know in Wisconsin and I cannot find a person who will say anything negative about Reince and each of them praise the job he has done as Chairman,” Barbour wrote to RNC members.
In addition to Priebus, Steele’s challengers include Saul Anuzis, the former chairman of the Michigan GOP; Ann Wagner, former head of the Missouri Republican Party; Maria Cino, a veteran of the Bush administration and a long-time GOP operative; and Gentry Collins, the RNC’s former political director.
Steele supporters continue to insist that the chairman’s election year record represents his strongest argument for re-election.
“I think that he’s the person best suited to lead the RNC. I find it really impossible to understand how it is that people can’t give him credit for one of the largest victories in generations and why people can’t give him credit for the energy and dedication he brings to the job,” New Mexico RNC committeeman Pat Rogers told ABC News. “I believe that it would be a mistake not to give him a chance to finish the job.”