With Steele's job on the line, Republicans vote for party chief

Republicans will decide Friday whether Michael Steele deserves some credit for the party’s historic victory in last year’s midterm elections or whether he should be replaced ahead of the presidential campaign cycle for being a gaffe-prone liability.
 
Steele, who is seeking a second term as chairman of the Republican National Committee, made a final 30-minute pitch to the 168 RNC members assembled at National Harbor in Maryland on Thursday afternoon for the party's annual winter meeting. His appeal is based on the Republicans' 2010 electoral success and a promise to improve the committee’s fundraising for the coming cycle. He recently unveiled a “five-part program designed to retain [major] donors and maximize their annual giving potential.”

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Steele faces four challengers and two years' worth of criticism.

But he hasn’t shied away from touting the GOP’s record during his tenure. “My record stands for itself. We won,” Steele said during the only RNC candidates debate Jan. 3. “I was asked to win elections. I was asked to raise money — $192 million over the last two years. We won. The fact that we’re here right now celebrating that win, I think, says a lot about the record."

Much of the criticism of Steele has been for the financial decisions made under his leadership. The committee starts the 2012 cycle more than $20 million in debt, which has worried members, particularly given President Obama's fundraising prowess. Some observers have predicted the RNC will need to raise close to $400 million in the next two years if it hopes to retake control of the Senate and defeat Obama.

Utah Republican Party Chairman Dave Hansen, who is backing former Bush administration official Maria Cino in the chairmanship race, described Steele’s chances in somber terms. “A lot of people walking past the corpse,” he said. “I don’t see a path to his victory.”

Needing 85 votes to win, Steele went into Friday in second place with some 30 pledged supporters, according to media estimates. He trailed Wisconsin Republican Party Chairman Reince Priebus, who has emerged as the front-runner in the race. Priebus has collected some 40 public endorsements. In addition to the committee members backing him, Priebus has the support of high-profile Wisconsin Republicans such as Rep. Paul Ryan, who has made calls to committee members on his behalf.

Priebus has promised a more robust fundraising effort and better outreach to Tea Party groups, if elected. “All of these groups will have a seat at the table when I’m chairman of the Republican National Committee,” he said during the RNC candidates debate.

But during that Jan. 3 event, he delivered a subdued performance, which had some Republicans questioning his ability to overcome the louder voices in the conservative movement and communicate the party’s message effectively.

Observers say Priebus will need a strong showing in the first round of balloting, which starts just after lunchtime. “If he has the air of inevitability, he’s probably going to be it,” Hansen said. But if his bid stalls, his supporters might look elsewhere for the best candidate to defeat Steele.

Missouri Republican Party Chairwoman Ann Wagner and Cino, a longtime party official, have both earned praise for being well-qualified candidates. But some Missouri Republicans consider Wagner, who served as ambassador to Luxembourg, an overly aggressive partisan and have questioned her ability to appeal to centrist voters.

Cino, who was a deputy RNC chairwoman during the 2004 cycle, has strong backing from Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), who made calls on her behalf and hosted a reception for members this week. She also has the support of top Bush administration officials, such as former Vice President Dick Cheney and GOP consultant Mary Matalin, who hosted a fundraiser for her.

Former Michigan Republican Party Chairman Saul Anuzis ran in 2009, finishing third, and has maintained close ties with many of the members. But some have grumbled about his support for a “National Popular Vote” system, which would award victory in a presidential election based on who receives the popular vote in all 50 states. Anuzis has called it a “truly representative and fairer process.”

Anuzis is also considered the centrist in the five-person field, which might limit his appeal as second choice.

“It probably comes down to who has the least negatives,” Hansen said.

The vote is expected to extend from early afternoon into Friday evening.

"I have a feeling it’s going to be three or more ballots,” said Hansen.

Steele won the chairmanship in 2009 on the sixth ballot, beating out South Carolina Republican Party Chairman Katon Dawson 91-77.