ABC News’ Michael Falcone reports:
Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele was a no show at a forum on Wednesday that featured a handful of candidates hoping to succeed him, but the event amounted to a referendum on his leadership.
It made no difference that Steele's name hardly came up at the event, organized by the Tea Party-affiliated group, FreedomWorks, and the RNC’s Conservative Caucus. The four contenders who participated openly complained about the party’s lackluster fundraising in 2010 and promised to take steps to revive it heading into the 2012.
Former RNC Political Director Gentry Collins, who has not officially declared his candidacy but took part in Wednesday’s session, estimated that the party would need roughly $425 million to pay for election efforts in the next cycle. He pledged to raise that much.
“Chairman Steele is a fine man, he’s a good man and he’s always been good to me personally,” Collins said, but added: “The party under his leadership failed to raise the major donor money” that it will take to beat President Barack Obama and other Democratic candidates two years from now.
Former Michigan Republican Party Chairman Saul Anuzis, who is vying for the top job at the RNC, echoed that point, saying that the “major donor program has dropped off significantly” at the RNC.
“We need a different type of leader for a different type of challenge,” Anuzis said.
Another candidate, former Missouri GOP Chairwoman Ann Wagner, promised that she would focus on restoring “the confidence of our donor base.”
And Mike Duncan, who held the RNC chairmanship during the 2008 election cycle and is considering running this year, also said that fundraising would be the most important challenge for the next chairman.
“There isn’t too much money in politics,” Duncan said. “There isn’t enough money.”
Duncan lost his re-election bid to Steele two years ago and was not originally scheduled to take part in Wednesday’s forum. Former Bush administration official Maria Cino and Connecticut GOP Chairman Chris Healy, who were listed as confirmed attendees, did not participate.
The candidates, who gathered in a hotel ballroom in Washington, took questions from the panel’s moderators, FreedomWorks’ National Political Director Russ Walker and Vice President of Public Policy Max Pappas, as well as from members of the audience in person and online who asked about a range of issues, including how to better engage with the Tea Party and conservative Hispanics and whether the candidates approved of Lisa Murkowski’s successful write-in bid for Senate in Alaska.
“I was personally disappointed,” Duncan said of Murkowski’s decision to run against Republican nominee Joe Miller.
All four panelists stressed that they would keep the RNC out of primary fights like those that swept a number of Tea Party-backed candidates into power this year.
Wagner, who served as ambassador to Luxembourg under President George W. Bush, said she offered a “unique” skill set from her service in government as well as in positions in state and national politics.
“I would not have put myself forward as a candidate if I didn’t think I could do a good job," she said.
Though Republicans made significant gains in House, Senate and governors races in November, Collins, who recently resigned his RNC position and issued a scathing critique of Steele’s leadership, said there “may have been as many as two dozen house races around the country” that the GOP might have won had more resources been available.
“I don't think we can count on 2012 offering the kind of tailwind for Republican candidates as it did in 2010,” Collins said.
The RNC chairmanship will be decided by a vote of the committee's 168 members at the party's January meeting in Washington.