RNC Battle About Waiting for the Alternative

by Stuart Rothenberg December 6, 2010 · 1:24 PM EST

Members of the Republican National Committee will pick a new chairman next month, and the odds are pretty good that it won’t be the current occupant of that position, Michael Steele.

Steele, of course, has drawn plenty of criticism over the past two years, and recent revelations about excessive spending by the RNC’s 2012 Committee on Arrangements would seem to put an end to talk that Steele will win another two-year term.

I say it “would seem” to put an end to Steele’s tenure because he hasn’t yet announced his intentions, other potential RNC hopefuls remain on the sidelines and Steele has a bloc of support in the committee (including in places such as the U.S. territories, which can’t vote for president but have a say in the party chairmanship) that is not inconsiderable.

“Every day that there is not a formidable alternative is a day that Michael Steele is closer to victory,” veteran Republican consultant John Grotta said.

Still, Steele’s prospects of hanging onto the chairmanship aren’t good, and a handful of Republicans have either begun campaigns for the chairmanship or continue to look at possible bids.

Two Republican operatives, Maria Cino and Gentry Collins, have made no secret of their interest in running the committee for the next two years.

Cino has served as chief of staff for Rep. Bill Paxon (N.Y.), as executive director of the National Republican Congressional Committee, as deputy chairwoman of the RNC and as deputy secretary of the Department of Transportation. (She served almost three months as acting secretary at DOT after Norman Mineta left that position.)

Collins, a former executive director of the Iowa GOP, political director at the Republican Governors Association and operative for Mitt Romney’s 2008 Iowa presidential campaign, recently left his position as political director of the RNC, blasting Steele’s tenure at the committee.

The problem for Cino and Collins is that RNC members, who include GOP state party chairmen and national committeemen from all states, see themselves as a small club, and they almost never see “staffers” as having enough heft to run the party’s national committee.

“Your average state chairman or national committeeman doesn’t want his state party staff thinking that they can challenge him for his job, so chairmen or national committee members aren’t inclined to support a staffer for party chairman,” one veteran GOP insider said.

A handful of current or former national committeemen are either in the race or considering their candidacies. Former RNC Chairman Mike Duncan was a surprise attendee at a late Wednesday panel for contenders.

So far, the candidates have taken thinly veiled shots at Steele’s tenure.

“As Chairman of the RNC, I’ll do the work behind the scenes — not out in front of the camera — to restore the faith of the committee’s supporters, and empower a grassroots army with the tools and technologies to end the Obama presidency before he destroys our country,” said Saul Anuzis, the former Michigan Republican Party chairman who ran against Steele in 2009 and was the first to enter this year.

Anuzis’ comment on his website about working “behind the scenes” is a reference to RNC members’ unhappiness with Steele’s very visible role at the committee and their interest in finding a new chairman who will emphasize party-building and fundraising, not media appearances.

Former Missouri GOP Chairwoman Ann Wagner, who served as co-chairwoman of the RNC from 2001 to 2005, jumped into the race this week. President George W. Bush appointed her ambassador to Luxembourg in 2005.

In a video announcing her candidacy and listing her credentials, Wagner emphasized that “fundraising must come first” and that “we also must have greater transparency and accountability when it comes to the RNC’s budget and expenditures” — two obvious shots across Steele’s bow.

Other names receive mention, including Connecticut GOP Chairman Chris Healy, but the most formidable potential candidate may well be Reince Priebus, the chairman of Wisconsin’s Republican Party.

An attorney who is general counsel for the RNC, Priebus was a supporter of Steele. But the Wisconsin Republican has picked up considerable support from influential members of the committee who are fed up with Steele, and he is now widely regarded as the favorite in the race if he decides to run.

Even with all the buzz about the contest, some think that the focus on the Republican chairmanship exaggerates its importance. After all, they note, with control of the House and so many new governors, the party doesn’t need a national spokesman.

Even more important, by the spring of 2012, the party is likely to have an apparent presidential nominee, who at that point will essentially take over the RNC and use it as an appendage of the presidential campaign.

But others think that the party’s success less than 24 months from now depends on a strong party structure.

“Republicans are so pumped about their opportunity now that they have forgotten that you need a good foundation [entering a presidential race cycle]. Right now, they don’t have it at the RNC,” Grotta said.