Race for RNC chairman remains a 'toss-up' as Steele defends tenure

With less than a month to go, the race for the chairmanship of the Republican National Committee (RNC) remains remarkably open.

To win, a candidate must gain the support of 85 of the 168 members of the Republican National Committee, most of whom remain publicly undecided.

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Of the six candidates, no clear front-runner has emerged against Chairman Michael Steele, who is running for a second term. But Wisconsin Party Chairman Reince Priebus, former Michigan GOP Chairman Saul Anuzis and former Missouri Republican Party Chairwoman Ann Wagner are considered the top contenders.

Also in the running are former George W. Bush administration official Maria Cino and former RNC political director Gentry Collins.

It’s a remarkably similar situation to the 2009 race, which had six candidates in the mix and no consensus choice. Steele won on the sixth ballot.

Now the incumbent chairman is defending his controversial tenure amid criticisms of his management style in the midterm elections and his limited fundraising for the party. Steele's rivals are using those negative reviews to tout their qualifications as the next chairman, who will lead the party through the 2012 presidential campaign.

Charlie Webster, chairman of the Maine Republican Party, said he thought the race was still a “toss-up” but planned to support Steele in his bid for reelection.

“He was supportive of Maine [in the November elections], so I feel an obligation to support him now,” said Webster.

Others want another option.

Matt Pinnell, head of the Oklahoma Republican Party, said he would not vote for Steele and was leaning toward another candidate.

“I’m tired of the drama, and I think whoever the next chairman is, we need someone who can bring this committee together and bring the party together, and raise the resources to run an effective campaign to make sure we get a Republican back in the White House,” he said.

Candidates will be looking for endorsements over the holidays as they try to cobble together enough votes to take them over the threshold. The election is at the party’s annual meeting on Jan. 20; there will be a debate on Jan. 3 at the National Press Club.

Here’s the rundown on those in the running:

Reince Priebus

A one-time Steele ally — he helped run Steele’s RNC campaign in 2009 — Priebus quit his position as RNC general counsel to run for the chairmanship.

Priebus, currently chairman of the Wisconsin Republican Party, released a campaign video that features Wisconsin Sen.-elect Ron Johnson, Gov.-elect Scott Walker and incoming House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, all praising their state’s chairman.

He has picked up the most endorsements so far, and is the nearest the race has to a front-runner. Mississippi Committeeman Henry Barbour, nephew of influential Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, is one of 17 committee members openly backing Priebus.

Michael Steele

Steele became the first African-American to head the committee when he won the 2009 race.

The former lieutenant governor of Maryland, Steele has a flamboyant leadership style. He crisscrossed the country on a “Fire Pelosi” bus tour during the November midterm elections, where Republicans picked up 63 House seats and increased their numbers in the Senate by five.

Yet loose comments frequently land Steele in hot water, and scandal erupted in March after RNC funds were used at a bondage-themed nightclub in California.

Steele has come under frequent criticism for over-spending during his time at the helm of the Republican Party, and he will need to overcome a high level of animosity from within GOP ranks if he is to win reelection.

Saul Anuzis

The former chairman of the Michigan GOP, Anuzis is looking for a rematch after losing to Steele in 2009. Anuzis was the first open contender for the chairmanship, announcing his candidacy on Nov. 12.

He has the backing of the Tea Party Nation and is positioning himself as close to the Republican grass roots. In his campaign video, Anuzis says: “The leader of the Republican Party is going to have to be a great fundraiser, put together one of the best ground games we’ve ever had, understand new technology and new media and communicate the message with the American voters.”

Anuzis considers himself to be a technology pro, and hopes that his position as chairman of the RNC’s Committee on Technology over the past two years will give him added credentials.

Ann Wagner

The former Missouri Republican Party chairwoman has an impressive resume and a known fundraising ability. She served as ambassador to Luxembourg as well as working as co-chairwoman of the RNC for a number of years. She recently chaired Roy Blunt’s (R-Mo.) successful bid for Senate.

In her campaign video, Wagner stressed the need to replenish the RNC’s finances. “Fundraising must come first,” she says.

Since announcing her candidacy, Wagner has picked up some high-profile backers, including former ambassador to the U.N. John Bolton and former Attorney General John Ashcroft, who served as a senator from Missouri.

Maria Cino

Cino served in the Bush administration — both in the Department of Transportation and the Department of Commerce. She has a history with the RNC, having worked as deputy chairwoman during the 2004 election and running the 2008 National Convention.

Her backers include Evie Axdahl, a Minnesota national committeewoman; Ed Cox, New York Party chairman; and Priscilla Rakestraw, Delaware national committeewoman. She will need to pick up some traction if she is to gain enough votes to win.

The former deputy secretary of Transportation, Cino has announced “action pledges” to address pressing issues for the RNC, with the first titled "Saving the Republican National Convention."

Gentry Collins

The former political director of the RNC and top Steele aide, Collins quit his position in November, penning a stinging rebuke of Steele’s leadership.

Collins’s resignation letter drew particular attention to the financial difficulties the RNC has incurred under Steele, which he claims could prevent its being a “productive force in the 2012 campaign.” He announced his bid for chairman on Dec. 13 and has since maintained a high level of criticism of the incumbent.

Still considered a long shot, Collins has tried to raise his profile recently, calling for ballot measures to repeal healthcare reform. His backers include Chris Healy, Connecticut Party chairman; Matt Strawn, Iowa Party chairman; and Tom Fetzer, North Carolina Party chairman.