Jonathan Cohn

You Think It's Easy Being Michael Steele?

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Back in 2009, after Barack Obama's big electoral victory, a lot of conservatives thought the Republican Party was in total shambles. So when it came time to pick a new party chairman that January, the candidates promising revolution all got a sympathetic ear. "I represent a threat to the system," Michael Steele declared after one forum for Republican National Committee chair candidates. "I want to change it from top to bottom." Steele ended up winning his race for RNC chair, and the hope at the time was that he'd give the GOP the extreme makeover it needed.

Of course, as we know now, that never happened. Republicans didn't need a makeover or more skill with social media (another popular theory at the time)as it turned out, a bit of obstructionism and a horrible economy were enough to let them retake the House. And Steele turned out to be a disaster. He couldn't raise money for the RNC, which is supposed to direct the bulk of the party's ground game, and his tenure was pockmarked by one embarrassing verbal blunder after another. Most observers agree that Republicans did well in the recent midterms despite the RNC, largely thanks to motivated conservative voters and money from outside groups like the Rove-linked American Crossroads.

That explains why, in the current race for RNC chair, most of the candidates are avoiding any pledges to remake the GOP and just sticking to boring old fundamentals. This afternoon, the Republican National Conservative Caucus and the Tea Party group FreedomWorks hosted a forum for RNC candidates at the Hilton Washington Hotel. And there was little talk of shaking up the party or revamping its image… the four candidates who appeared at the forum all agreed: The Republican Party was basically in fine shape, it just needed a party chairman who wasn't as incompetent as Michael Steele at raising money and getting out the vote. (According to Gentry Collins, the former RNC political director, the committee may need to raise and distribute a whopping $450 million to knock off Obama in 2012.)

Take, for instance, Saul Anuzis, the former GOP chair in Michigan who ran against Steele the last go-round: "Before I ran I made phone calls to some of our large donors and told them, 'I realize we have problems at the RNC, why aren't you donating?' And many of them just hadn't been asked!" Knowing members of the audience shook their heads in disgust. Anuzis conceded that he himself wasn't a "natural fundraiser," but he still promised to spend the bulk of his time devoted to it. Likewise, Ann Wagner, the former Missouri GOP chair, promised that, if elected, she'd be chairman "fulltime and 24/7"a subtle dig at Steele, who spent a lot of time doing things like promoting a book no one knew he was writing. The implicit promise: I'll go back to the good old days when the RNC chair was dry, dull, and totally anonymous!

At one point, Collins injected a hint of pessimism into the debate, noting that, "I don't think we can count on 2012 offering the tailwind for GOP candidates that 2010 did." But, he noted, there were ways to surmount this fact, like placing anti-Obamacare initiatives were on the ballot in a variety of states in 2012 to boost conservative turnout. And the candidates all concurred that the GOP itself was on the right track. Anuzis even noted that he had had to refer to himself as a "recovering Republican" in 2008, suggesting that Republicans had only lost those elections because they weren't conservative enough.

Other than that, there wasn't a lot to distinguish the candidates (the other contender who showed up was former RNC chair Mike Duncan). Everyone offered up paeans to the Tea Party, pledges to stay neutral in GOP primaries, promises to harness technology for voter outreach… (Anuzis: "I have been posting on Facebook and sending out Tweets during this debate!") The bland agreement wasn't terribly surprising. Ultimately, this race will get decided behind closed doors by the 168 members of the RNC. These public debates don't mean all that much; while it's easy and harmless to kiss up to the Tea Party, it's hardly essential. Indeed, several rumored contenders for the RNC chair, including former Bush administration official Maria Cino, didn't even bother to show up today.

One thing that's still scrambling the RNC race is that Steele still hasn't formally announced whether he's planning to run again or not. A lot of reports suggest that he could be doomedthe AP recently surveyed 51 RNC members, and 39 of them wanted Steele out. On the other hand, as I noted in this old piece, Steele can be surprisingly shrewd at cultivating allies. He's spent a lot of time over the past two years working over RNC members, especially delegates in oft-neglected places like Guam, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands (those territories have just as many delegates apiece as Texas and California). And it was telling that most of the candidates today avoided criticizing Steele directlyeven Collins, who complained back when he resigned in November that Steele's fundraising blunders had cost the GOP Senate seats in Colorado and Washington. It seems like everyone's still waiting to see what the current chair does. Who knows? Maybe this is another secretly brilliant ploy on Steele's part.

(Flickr photo credit: Joeff)

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