Republicans are poised to select the leader today to carry them into battle against President Barack Obama and the Democrats in the run-up to 2012, and early indications are that incumbent Chairman Michael Steele’s prospects of holding onto his job are fading.
Although selecting a Republican National Committee (RNC) chairman is a byzantine affair likely to take multiple votes, the math doesn’t look good for Steele.
Wisconsin GOP Chairman Reince Priebus, the former RNC counsel under Steele who resigned, continues to rack up endorsements from the 168 members of the committee. The selection process begins Friday, and the event will air on CSPAN. Sequential rounds of balloting will take place until one candidate emerges with the magic number to win the election to the chairmanship, which is 85 votes.
The latest RNC whip count shows that Priebus has lined up 43 commitments, dwarfing Steele’s 17, according to the National Journal’s HotlineOnCall.com. However, sources say some known Steele supporters are lying low and simply haven’t confirmed their support for him yet, so his strength may be greater than appearances suggest.
Priebus also received an influential endorsement Thursday from former New Hampshire Gov. John Sununu.
"I will be supporting Reince Priebus," Sununu said. "He can and will begin the process of developing and putting in place the programs that will ultimately lead to our success during the next two years."
Michigan RNC member Saul Anuzis is tied with Ann Wagner, the former RNC co-chairman who served as President George W. Bush’s ambassador to Luxembourg.
Anuzis and Wagner have 15 endorsements each.
Maria Cino, who ran the 2008 GOP convention in Minneapolis, is trailing with 12 votes. But she received a big endorsement Thursday from House Speaker John Boehner. Also, former Ohio Secretary of State Kenneth Blackwell, who does not sit on the RNC but who ran against Steele for the chairmanship in the last election, told Newsmax Thursday night that he’s throwing his support behind Cino as well.
“I think in terms of doing the grass-roots organizing and fundraising that the chairman is supposed to do, I think that Maria can get that job done,” Blackwell tells Newsmax.
Mathematically, with 66 members of the committee uncommitted heading into the voting, any of the five candidates realistically could win. But GOP insiders tell Newsmax that Steele will probably need a surprisingly strong showing on the first round, to have much hope of winning.
Steele has been battered by a series of gaffes and disclosures, and the faith of Republican donors in the organization’s ability to spend their money wisely appeared damaged late in the last election cycle. The RNC is more than $15 million in debt. But Steele’s supporters have countered that the controversial chairman, who has kept the attention on himself with speeches and a book tour but at times appeared to distract from the party’s political messaging, ultimately got the job done. They point to the overwhelming GOP landslide in November as a sign something must have gone right.
That there are still hard feelings toward Steele among some GOP insiders is manifest. When Newsmax asked one high-level GOP fundraiser what impact another Steele term would have, he replied, “If the last two years are any indication, it would be a disaster for Republicans.”
Asked to elaborate, he added: “There was a movie a few years ago, 'Sleepless in Seattle.' Well, Michael Steele is clueless in Washington.”
ABC News reported Thursday that the consensus that Steele must be evicted is “deep and wide.”
Such pointed attacks often are made anonymously in order to avoid offending Steele’s supporters. But those who analyze politics for a living are equally outspoken.
“Steele is a nice fellow, but he is blamed even by his friends for a sub-par performance by the RNC during the 2010 elections,” University of Virginia political guru Larry J. Sabato recently told Newsmax. “Many GOP operatives believe the RNC’s dramatically reduced presence in the ground game cost the Republicans some governorships and Senate seats. They don’t want to see that again in 2012.”
In fact, Republicans are warning quietly that time is running out for the RNC to get its act together if it hopes to have a renewed relevance in 2012. Beyond its current deficit, it is staring at an oncoming Obama freight train — a fundraising juggernaut that, by some estimates, will be the first in political history to spend more than $1 billion on a single election.
That daunting reality means that Republicans will need all hands on deck if they hope to take back the White House.
"Mike is a very nice guy, and I think he tried very hard," Connecticut Republican Party Chairman Chris Healy told the National Journal. "But unfortunately, the record is what it is, and the needs and the goals of the next 16 months are going to require something a little different, something more down in the trenches as opposed to being more in front of the lights."
Democratic pollster and Fox News commentator Douglas Schoen told Newsmax recently that, “for a party trying to offer a message of accountability and fiscal discipline, it would be very difficult for the Republicans to stay on message if Michael Steele stays as head of the RNC.”
With so many uncommitted delegates, anything could happen. But the consensus is that by close of business Friday, after the smoke clears at National Harbor in Maryland where the RNC vote is being held, the GOP will have a new chairman.
Then the work will begin for 2012.
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