Embattled Republican National Committee Chairman Michael S. Steele and the four candidates vying for his job engaged in an occasionally heated debate Monday in which the challengers took aim at the RNC’s unprecedented red ink and lackluster fundraising.
The challengers, all eager to lead the party into the 2012 electoral cycle, knocked the performance of Mr. Steele, whom GOP governors, congressional leaders and fellow RNC members have accused of financial ineptitude and mismanagement in presiding over the committee since his election in January 2009.
“How can an organization that has lost its credibility, is $20 million in debt, is steeped in mismanagement, distractions and drama actually lead us into the next election cycle of 2012 and offer change?” said Ann Wagner, a former Missouri Republican chairman and U.S. ambassador to Luxembourg.
“I think it’s time for real change, and a change of course at the Republican National Committee. The RNC has been the most important and relevant and impactful political organization in over — well over a generation in America and, dare I say, the world. And it is broken, and it needs to be fixed,” she said.
Generating occasional bursts of applause from the National Press Club audience, Mr. Steele stoutly defended his tenure and pointed repeatedly to Republican gains at the polls since he took office in January 2009.
Mr. Steele, dressed in a dark suit and conservative tie and looking every bit a national party leader, impressed even some of his critics as the RNC’s 168-member panel prepares to vote on its leader next week.
“I expected him to come off as defensive but he came on strong and sounded confident,” said Jim Martin, chairman of the 60+ lobbying group. “I think he actually did the best of the five.”
He said retiring the debt and raising another $400 million will require the next chairman “to be sitting in that office for five or six hours a day, running through major donor lists, setting up meetings, setting up a national finance network, a national finance team in order to fully fund all of these programs.”
Steele critics have faulted the chairman for failing to properly court major donors, who turned to other organizations in the past election cycle.
Before deciding to run for chairman, Mr. Anuzis said he called major donors who had left the party during the past two years and was surprised to hear them say they were willing to come back and that “often they weren’t even asked for a contribution” during the Steele regime.
Mr. Anuzis said as chairman he would spend the overwhelming part of his time fundraising so that the state Republican parties can do what’s necessary to get out the vote in 2012.