Fri January 14, 2011

Michael Steele Faces Tough Re-Election Battle

Michael Steele will find out Friday if he needs to find a new job as the Republican National Committee meets to elect a chairman to prepare the party for the 2012 presidential election.

Steele faces four challengers, each promising to reverse fundraising troubles the RNC had during his tenure, and each pledging to avoid the steady stream of controversy that marked Steele's two years as head of the GOP.

In the wide corridor of a hotel/convention complex just outside Washington, Steele seemed relaxed Thursday as he began one final day of campaigning to hang onto his job.

"You never know how these things go, but the reality is it's going to take a little work," he said.

Steele seems relaxed. He is polite, but not inclined to handicap his chances with a couple of reporters.

"I've gotten out of the prediction business a long time ago," he said.

Rising Frustration

But, says Reid Wilson, editor in chief of the National Journal's Hotline, who is following the RNC race closely, the "overwhelming likelihood is the Michael Steele will not be re-elected chairman of the RNC."

Wilson says Steele's time as RNC chairman was high-profile, but in the wrong way. There were questions about his spending, his travel on private planes, his paid speaking engagements and his troubles raising money. That last item on the list was perhaps his most grievous sin.

Wilson says the frustration with Steele grew among RNC members; Steele loyalists defected. Steele says GOP successes in November mean he did his job well, but state party officials complained last year about shrinking RNC resources.

"There was a serious lack of funding here because Michael Steele wasn't able to pull in the same kinds of donations that the RNC has seen in previous years," Wilson said.

Steele's Rivals

The RNC has a $15 million debt to pay off even before it starts raising money for next year's elections. The perceived front-runner in the race for the chairman's job is Wisconsin Republican Party Chair Reince Priebus, but he has commitments for only about half the votes he needs to win.

Also running is Ann Wagner, a longtime party activist and a former U.S. ambassador to Luxembourg.

Last year, groups not connected to the national party played a big role in pouring money into congressional elections. But Wagner insists that such outside entities do not diminish the role of the RNC.

"I still think it is the premier political institution in America and the world, and there are some things it can and must to well, and especially during a presidential cycle year," she said.

Wagner notes that only the RNC can coordinate with state party organizations and only it organizes the national presidential nominating convention.

'Consensus For Change'

The other two candidates in the mix Friday are former Bush administration official Maria Cino and veteran Michigan Republican party official Saul Anuzis.

Under the rules, balloting continues until someone gets half of the votes.   There are 168 voting members; 85 votes win. There is no requirement for candidates getting a low number of votes to drop out. Ballot after ballot will be held until there's a winner.

"I think clearly the first question will be whether we re-elect Steele, but I think there's consensus for change," Anuzis said. "And I think we'll go five or six ballots, and if some of the candidates have strategies to stay in longer it could go six, seven or eight."

Hotline's Wilson says this year RNC delegates are looking for a good manager and a great fundraiser, but they may be looking for something else as well.

"After the last two years of excitement," he says, "boring would be a benefit to a lot of members." Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.