ABC News' Michael Falcone reports:
Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele announced on Monday that he will run for another term as head of the RNC, setting up what is sure to be one of the toughest fights of his political career.
Steele broke his public silence after more than a month, confirming on a conference call with members of the RNC that he would be seeking re-election after a tumultuous two-year term. He kept his intentions a closely-guarded secret and his decision to jump in the race surprised some Republican Party insiders who speculated that he would step aside.
"I'm asking you tonight for your support," Steele said on the call. "I'm asking for your vote for a second term."
Steele’s decision sets up a battle with at least five other candidates who are vying to replace him, including two contenders who recently left RNC positions.
The challengers include Saul Anuzis, the former chairman of the Michigan GOP; Ann Wagner, former head of the Missouri Republican Party; Reince Priebus, chairman of the Wisconsin Republican Party and the RNC’s former general counsel; Maria Cino, a veteran of the Bush administration and a long-time GOP operative; and Gentry Collins, the RNC’s former political director. Steele’s predecessor, former RNC chief Mike Duncan, is also considering a run.
Responding to Steele's announcement, Cino cited the party's "massive debt, outdated technology, diminished donor support, and a non-existent voter registration program" as reasons for a change in leadership.
"What I've heard in my conversations with RNC members is that our party needs a leader who can rebuild our voter programs, reclaim our technology dominance and, most importantly, raise and responsibly manage the hundreds of millions of dollars needed to win in 2012," Cino said.
Anuzis, who was the first to announce his candidacy last month, put it simply: "I'm looking forward to engaging in a discussion about the future of our party."
Steele, who won election as the first African American chairman of the RNC in 2009, has emerged as one of the most vocal and controversial party leaders in recent memory. In addition to the crowning achievement of his tenure — the historic midterm election victories this November — he also presided over a number of embarrassing episodes, including revelations that the RNC paid for a fundraising excursion to a sex-themed nightclub in California.
And recently, the RNC has been hit with a string of negative stories, including the news that the committee is more than $15 million in debt. Critics charge that Steele has been a poor steward of the party's finances and allowed its high-dollar donor program to languish.
Each candidate seeking to replace him has, in one form or another, taken issue with Steele’s stewardship of the party, including Collins, who worked closely with Steele during the 2010 election cycle and made his candidacy official just hours before Steele spoke by phone to committee members.
“My campaign for Chairman is based on a plan for the future, not a critique of the past,” Collins wrote in a letter to committee members on Monday. “I have a plan to strengthen our party, reclaim the RNC's place as the premier political organization in the country, and raise the resources we need to compete with President Obama’s fundraising machine.”
Collins’ announcement letter was a toned-down version of a much sharper critique he penned last month when he resigned as political director of the party. In it he warned that “if left on its current path, the RNC will not be a productive force in the 2012.”
His critique is shared by some, but not all. Steele has a base of allies within the committee, and he’s going to need them to remain loyal if he hopes to retain the chairmanship.
Soon after Monday's night's announcement, Idaho Republican Party Chairman Norm Semanko, a long-time friend of Steele's, expressed his support in an e-mail message to the committee.
"As the 168 Members of the RNC, it is time for us to look past the hyperbole, rise above the drama, and provide a strong, united front," Semanko said. "We cannot afford to be divided — or to take an unnecessary risk by changing leaders — and provide fodder to the press and the Democrats. Rank-and file Republicans and the American people are counting on us; no more business as usual."
All candidates have roughly one month to campaign for the job. The vote of 168 committee members will take place at the RNC’s winter meeting in mid-January.