Can Michael Steele Hang On as Republican Leader?

RNC Chair Michael Steele is facing a challenge for his job.

November 15, 2010, 7:51 PM

Nov. 16, 2010— -- Talk to Republican Party insiders these days and they will tell you that Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele is in deep trouble. They say there are slew of potential challengers waiting to topple him as head of the party. Problem is, so far only one has stepped up.

Last week, former Michigan Republican Party head Saul Anuzis said that although he considered Steele "a friend and colleague" he was concerned about the party's ability to "provide the financial resources we need to support the organizational efforts and ground games of our state parties" in 2012.

Steele has yet to officially announce he is running for another term as chairman, and while Anuzis was the first contender to publicly challenge him, he may not be the last. A short list of potential chairman hopefuls seems to grow longer by the day.

That list includes Wisconsin GOP Chairman Reince Priebus, former Missouri GOP chair Ann Wagner, Connecticut Republican Party head Chris Healy, former RNC Chairman Mike Duncan, former North Dakota GOP chairman Gary Emineth, California GOP chief Ron Nehring, former RNC official Maria Cino, former Nevada Gov. Bob List and failed California Republican Senate candidate Carly Fiorina, among others.

"There have been almost as many sightings of RNC chairmen candidates as Big Foot, and they're about as real," said one member of the Republican National Committee who requested anonymity to speak openly about internal dynamics of the chairman's race.

The source added: "I'm unconvinced that any name that has been floated so far can win, and I am absolutely convinced that no name floated so far starts with a larger base than the chairman currently has."

But on Monday, several Steele detractors sounded more confident in news reports about their chances to find a viable challenger.

In a recent interview with ABC News, Anuzis acknowledged that perhaps 40-50 of the 168 GOP committee members continue to support Steele, 40-50 are against him and 60-70 are somewhere in between. He said he would be working the phones, sending e-mail pitches and pressing the flesh at this week's Republican Governors Association meeting in San Diego to build support for his candidacy.

Pro-Steele backers like New Mexico RNC committeeman Pat Rogers are beginning to arm themselves for a fight. Rogers said all the talk of potential successors to Steele is "puzzling" after the party's wins at the ballot box in November.

"I look forward to explaining to my fellow delegates why we would be foolish not to re-elect someone with this track record," Rogers said, adding that he had already contacted Steele to volunteer his help.

But party leaders increasingly view Steele as vulnerable and liken the race for GOP chairman to a contest for high school class president. It is an insider's game in which rapidly shifting alliances can make or break a candidate's chances. Two years ago, it took six secret ballots for Steele to win a majority.

In early 2009, when the party was still reeling from stinging electoral defeats, Steele looked to many RNC members like an ideal party spokesman. But he quickly became known as a loose-lipped, gaffe-prone leader whose tenure as chairman included a number of major embarrassments.

Heading into 2012, Mississippi RNC committeeman Henry Barbour said that he and many of his counterparts believe that the party needs "more of a nuts and bolts workhorse than a show horse." Barbour is among a group of party insiders who have been suggesting possible replacements.

"There's growing discontent with the chairman," Barbour said in an interview. "I do think he's got an uphill climb, but I am certain he would run an aggressive campaign."

Barbour, the nephew of Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, said that with a presidential election approaching the RNC's focus should be on becoming the "pre-eminent fundraising committee in Washington."

Former Nevada Gov. Bob List is among those considering whether to jump into the chairman's race, citing an "evolution of party priorities."

"The main objective I have in this important cycle is to see this party united and unified as we go into 2012," he said. "It's absolutely critical that we merge all of the factions -- especially the Tea Party -- and capture their energy and enthusiasm."

Still, some Steele supporters view the concern as misplaced.

"I think the chatter is overblown," said Michigan RNC committeewoman Holly Hughes. "I predict that Michael Steele will run again and he'll win. I think it would be unusual for him not to win given the historic election we've had."

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