Embattled Republican Party Chairman Michael S. Steele announced Monday that he will run for a second two-year term next month, setting up a pitched battle for control of the party as it seeks to build on the big gains it made in November’s midterm elections.
Mr. Steele, who has proved a combative and at times polarizing figure as head of the Republican National Committee, confounded political handicappers, who predicted he would step aside after a tumultuous two years at the helm of the RNC.
Jim Bopp, a Republican National Committee member from Indiana, told The Washington Times that Mr. Steele announced his decision in a conference call with supporters and officials of the 168-member RNC on Monday evening.
Mr. Steele ended the 40-minute call by playing what Mr. Bopp described as the “race card.”
“Who you elect as our next Chairman will speak volumes about our willingness to truly be the party of Lincoln,” Mr. Steele said.
Mr. Bopp took umbrage with the statement.
“It is apparent that when Steele loses, he wants to take down the RNC with him,” Mr. Bopp said. “This is the threat he has made by playing the race card - he will smear the RNC by saying we are all racist by not voting for him.”
The decision by Mr. Steele caps months of speculation, controversy and behind-the-scenes political maneuvering by the chairman’s critics and supporters alike as his two-year term was drawing to a close.
“Tonight, I come to my bosses with a record that only you can judge, based upon directions you made clear to me from the very beginning,” Mr. Steele said in his conference call. “Yes, I have stumbled along the way, but have always accounted to you for such shortcomings. No excuses. No lies. No hidden agenda.”
Then came his direct pitch for re-election. “Going forward, I ask for your support and your vote for a second term,” he said.
He crafted a sentence that anticipated the many instances opponents of his re-election will cite of his misstatements, contradictions and indecipherable statements on everything from whether the Republicans can take back the House in 2010 — he said they couldn’t — to his opposition to a resolution by members saying Republicans must block President Obama’s march to socialism.
“I believe the worst thing we can do now is to look backwards,” he said.
Many were surprised by Mr. Steele’s decision to run again.
“Most members think he doesn’t have the votes to win, and it would not be healthy for the RNC either to run or be re-elected,” said Tennessee RNC member John Ryder. “While he has done some positive things, the overall consequences of his chairmanship has been to reduce the effectiveness of the RNC.”
Mr. Steele was elected to the position in January 2009 after one term as the lieutenant governor of Maryland and an unsuccessful 2006 run for the U.S. Senate.
A number of potential replacements have been emerged as challengers or potential challengers to Mr. Steele, including former Minnesota Sen. Norm Coleman, Wisconsin GOP Chairman Reince Priebus, former George W. Bush administration official Maria Cino, former Michigan GOP chairman Saul Anuzis, former Missouri GOP chairwoman Ann Wagner and former RNC Political Director Gentry Collins.
Mr. Collins’ very public resignation last month, complete with a parting shot at Mr. Steele’s management, was one of a number of personnel clashes that occurred under Mr. Steele’s watch.
Ms. Cino, the latest candidate to enter the race, took at shot at Mr. Steele’s leadership in a letter to RNC members over the weekend, writing, “We need to turn our party around to reach its full potential.”
Mr. Steele’s fate had been the subject of considerable speculation following the Nov. 2 vote, with the chairman keeping his decision secret even from close supporters before the formal announcement was made. The election for the next chairman will be held at the RNC’s Jan. 14 winter meeting in Washington.
In two years as RNC head, Mr. Steele has been a highly visible spokesman for the GOP, appearing on countless news programs and presiding — at least symbolically — over the party machinery as Republicans made major gains in Congress and in statehouses around the country since 2008.
But the 52-year-old chairman has also had his share of gaffes and ethical challenges and has been blamed for the lack of fundraising success at the RNC.
In March of 2009, Mr. Steele apologized for remarks critical of conservative broadcaster Rush Limbaugh, then drew the ire of pro-life Republicans for describing abortion as an “individual choice.” Earlier this year, he angered Republican leaders again after questioning whether American forces could win in Afghanistan.
Mr. Steele has also been hurt by repeated press accounts of the RNC’s financial scandals - from lavish salaries bestowed on the chairman’s friends and associates to expense-account reimbursements from a sex club.
Mr. Collins, who officially announced Monday that he will be a candidate to replace Mr. Steele, wrote in his resignation that the RNC needed to “adopt a laser-like focus on the hard work of reviving our major-donor fundraising network.”
That criticism — the inability to attract big-money donors who have traditionally backed the RNC — appears to be the most damaging to Mr. Steele.
The Washington Times reported last week that the RNC heads into the 2012 presidential-election cycle more than $20 million in debt, “the biggest debt the national committee ever had,” said David Norcross, a former RNC general counsel.
According to a recent internal RNC report, donations from donors who give more than $1,000 were running 47 percent below projections for the year.
Mr. Steele and his backers have argued that comparatively poor fundraising totals — $179 million this year, compared with $405 million in the 2007-08 cycle — were to be expected, with the Democrats in control of the White House.
The chairman was also dogged by charges of waste and cronyism.
Last month, The Washington Times reported that Mr. Steele had hired his former personal assistant, Belinda Cook, to serve for six months for $115,000 to manage preparations in Tampa, Fla., for the 2012 GOP convention.