Reince Priebus Has Edge in Race to Republican Chairman

Republican consensus is that chairman's job is up for grabs.

ByMichael Falcone
January 11, 2011, 6:39 PM

Jan. 12, 2011 -- With just days to go until members of the Republican National Committee elect a chairman to lead them into the 2012 presidential election cycle, Wisconsin's Reince Priebus appears to have the edge while incumbent Michael Steele seems to have the longest odds for keep the job.

The consensus among party insiders, however, is that the race is still essentially anybody's game.

With five candidates vying for the position, including current RNC Chairman Michael Steele, a quirky election process that will likely include multiple ballots as well as a series of public commitments from members that could quickly shift once the voting begins, this Friday's election could turn into long day of arm twisting.

So far, Wisconsin Republican Party Chairman Reince Priebus has captured more endorsements from the 168 GOP state chairs and national committee members than any other candidate.

Steele, former Michigan GOP chairman Saul Anuzis, former Missouri GOP chair Ann Wagner and long-time Republican operative Maria Cino appear to be trailing. But dozens of members are either undecided or unwilling to publicly commit to a candidate.

One RNC committee member told ABC News there's a "pretty deep and wide consensus among a lot of us that Steele needs to go."

Whoever wins will inherit a party committee that, despite impressive midterm election year victories, is hobbled by financial woes, including debt reaching into the tens of millions as well as a crippled major donor program. The job won't be about being figurehead for the party -- that role will fall to the eventual Republican presidential nominee -- but rather about running an organization that many committee members believe has veered off course.

In a memo to committee members this week, even Steele acknowledged that "many of the RNC's past major donors are no longer politically active, or followed past party leaders to 527s which are not bound by the donation limits and disclosure requirements which apply to the RNC."

Can Michael Steele Keep His Job as Republican Chairman

Three of the candidates -- Priebus, Anuzis and Wagner -- have experience running state parties and they would each bring practical management skills to the position.

Priebus has pointed to his track record of "raising money, selecting strong, conservative candidates and staying on message" in Wisconsin.

Anuzis released a five-point plan focused on restoring the credibility of the RNC with donors, rethinking the committee's get out the vote program and "winning the digital, social and mobile campaign."

Wagner has issued a similar agenda to overhaul the RNC's financial, political and communications structure.

Cino can point to her experience as deputy chair of the RNC, CEO of the 2008 Republican National Convention, executive director of the National Republican Congressional Committee, and a transportation department official in the Bush administration. She is a consummate political operative, who has the high-profile backing of former vice president Dick Cheney and House Speaker John Boehner.

All of them have said that restoring the fiscal health of the RNC is their top priority and each has promised to be the party's fundraiser-in-chief. If elected, either Cino or Wagner would be only the second woman to serve as RNC chair.

Sources within the committee caution that come Friday anything can happen, but even some of Steele's supporters privately acknowledge that his path to re-election is steep. They expect that his support could dwindle without an extremely strong showing on the first ballot.

Cino told ABC News that the chairman "has done a good job of conducting himself" during the race, but predicted that re-election would be "a big challenge for him."

Republican Party Election Remains Up for Grabs

Nevertheless, Steele backers like Michigan GOP committeewoman Holly Hughes have been helping him round up endorsements and on Monday night the chairman circulated a memo touting the RNC's accomplishments and rebutting much of the criticism that has been leveled by rivals.

"Over the past two years, by many key measures, the RNC has been more successful at that task than any committee in history," Steele wrote. "Notwithstanding the inside Washington noise, that is simply a fact. And, working together, our party can make sure that the next two years are even better."

Massachusetts RNC committeeman Ron Kaufman said that Priebus, who has the backing of one of the committee's most influential members -- Mississippi committeeman Henry Barbour, nephew of the state's Gov. Haley Barbour -- looks like he has considerable momentum going into this Friday's vote.

"Where that leads to is still up in the air," Kaufman said in an interview with ABC News. "RNC elections are kind of like conventions, once the gavel comes down it takes on a life of its own."

But other candidates have been seeking to throw cold water on reports that Priebus is the front-runner. Anuzis, who ran for RNC chair two years ago and lost, said that if Steele bows out after the first round of voting Priebus would have to lay claim to at least half of Steele's votes in order to win outright on the second ballot.

"Based on our internal count and that of other campaigns and RNC members, that seems highly unlikely," Anuzis wrote in a memo to his supporters. "Once Steele is out, the dynamics change. Reince may or may not hold onto all his votes and whatever 'anybody but Steele' votes he was able to rally early on in order to create Steele's vulnerability."

As Republican political strategist Mike Murphy pointed out in an online column, in some corners of the party, Priebus, who served until recently as the RNC's general counsel, is viewed as a Steele ally who betrayed the chairman while others perceive him as "too close to the old Steele regime."

"I think there is about a 60 percent chance that Priebus will take it, followed by a 35 percent chance for Anuzis and a 10 percent chance for a Cino upset," wrote Murphy, who is not a member of the committee.

The five candidates and their backers have been crisscrossing the country, making phone calls, sending volleys of e-mail messages and releasing action plans to shore up support ahead of the vote.

"Republicans are going to be faced with a billion dollar campaign that's going to be waged by Barack Obama in 2012," Cino said, noting that her past experience with the party would enable her to "walk in on January 15 with no on the job training."

She added, "It's not just a $20 million debt, it's a campaign that is coming at us like a freight train."

The vote for chairman will take place on Friday beginning at 10 a.m. ET during the RNC's winter meeting, which is being held at the Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center in National Harbor, Md.

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