They fear that alienating Steele could cause headaches for the party’s attempt to win back the White House in 2012.
Republican leaders have started to clamor for change atop the RNC while acknowledging that if Steele wages a tough fight for a second term as chairman, it could evolve into a politically messy spectacle.
“There’s widespread concern about the appearance of dumping the chairman of the RNC for the wrong reasons — particularly the first African-American chairman of the RNC when we have the first African-American president,” said former Rep. Vin Weber (R-Minn.).
Weber added, “In politics, perception is everything.”
Steele has not declared he will seek a second term at the RNC, but he has not ruled it out. The former Maryland lieutenant governor has been vocal since the Nov. 2 elections in promoting the RNC’s role in delivering Republican victories this fall, triggering speculation he will mount a bid.
After several gaffes as chairman, some Republicans privately suggested that Steele could be removed before the end of his term, which expires early next year. But cutting an RNC chairmanship short requires two-thirds of the 168 committee members — votes that critics of Steele did not have.
Congressional Republicans distanced themselves from Steele throughout 2010, with many of them thinking he would leave as the 112th Congress started.
Minority Leader John BoehnerJohn Andrew BoehnerLobbying world A new kind of hero? Last week's emotional TV may be a sign GOP up in arms over Cheney, Kinzinger MORE (R-Ohio) told The Hill that Steele did not have a role in the House GOP’s “Pledge to America.”
In January, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellHouse to act on debt ceiling next week White House warns GOP of serious consequences on debt ceiling Lindsey Graham: Police need 'to take a firm line' with Sept. 18 rally attendees MORE (R-Ky.) declined to defend Steele, saying, “Chairman Steele will be judged on the basis of how much money did he raise and how many candidates did he elect.”
Steele this month said he has won more elections than any chairman since 1938.
Steele’s office at the RNC did not respond on Tuesday to a request for comment.
Opponents of a second term for Steele are hoping he will see the writing on the wall and politely bow out of the race.
“I worry Steele would try to make this an ‘us versus them’ sort of thing, so I hope he will count the votes and decline to force an unpleasant race that he cannot win,” said one committeeman.
Steele has aggressively taken on his detractors, and more of that could be coming in the weeks ahead.
He told his GOP critics “to get a life” at the start of this year, adding, “I’ve had enough of it. If you don’t want me in the job, fire me. But until then, shut up. Get with the program or get out of the way.”
Powerful figures in the party have started to go public with the case against Steele. The RNC chairman for the 2012 cycle, they say, has to be focused more on party-building and fundraising than serving as a face of the party — a subtle knock at Steele’s not-infrequent media appearances.
“In any race you have, you take a look at what the current circumstances are,” said Michigan RNC committeeman Saul Anuzis, the first announced candidate to challenge Steele. “He was hired for the 2010 cycle, when we needed a spokesperson and face of the party. In the 2012 cycle, we’re going to have a very different set of circumstances.”
The momentum among RNC members is “clearly moving toward making a change,” said Henry Barbour, a Mississippi committeeman and nephew of Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour (R).
“I believe the RNC needs to focus on electing the person who can put the party in the strongest position to win back the White House and Senate,” he said. “The momentum on the committee is clearly moving toward making a change, because our country’s future is genuinely at stake if the Obama administration gets an extra four years of their leftist agenda.”
Adding to Steele’s woes was a letter released by RNC political director Gentry Collins, who resigned from his position on Tuesday. In a move that casts light on some of the internal strife that has existed within the RNC over the last two years, Collins criticized Steele’s financial stewardship of the committee.
More candidates are expected to enter the race for chairman, which will be decided by a vote of RNC members in January.
A meeting of the Republican Governors Association (RGA) later this week could draw several candidates into the race. Haley Barbour, who heads the Republican Governors Association and is mulling a presidential bid, criticized the RNC’s use of resources in the midterm elections earlier this month.
If Steele does run again, he could attract the backing of one of the most powerful forces in the GOP: former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin.
Steele has been an outspoken defender of Palin and her role within the GOP at a time when other strategists question her viability as a leader of the Republican Party.
While Palin is not an RNC member, an alliance between the first female vice presidential GOP candidate and the first black RNC chairman could spark a major intra-party battle.
As the knives came out for Steele about 10 months ago, Palin defended him on Fox News, blasting the “establishment” that was “throwing stones” at him.
She said, “[M]ore power to you, Michael. You’re calling it the way that you see it, and you deserve to call it that way.”
The pair campaigned together at several turns during Steele’s “Fire Pelosi” bus tour during the closing months of the campaign. The RNC chairman also used that bus trip to cozy up to the Tea Party movement, a new phenomenon whose influence in the RNC race is yet to be determined.
But either way, the diverse splay of Tea Party groups and the different RNC members aren’t likely to line up behind a single candidate, Anuzis said.
At the end of the day, though, a divisive fight for party leadership might be avoided if Steele declines to run.
Some Republicans mused that if Steele were to receive an offer to lead one of the outside groups that spent big in the 2010 elections, he might seize the opportunity. (Steele served as chairman of GOPAC before becoming RNC chairman. Current GOPAC Chairman Frank Donatelli declined comment for this story.)
If Steele does try to stick around for another term, the eventual 2012 Republican presidential candidate might have a difficult time pushing him out.
“A number of journalists and outside observers seem to think this is going to be a relatively easy task. It is not. Dislodging a sitting chairman of the RNC is a tough job,” Weber said. “Dumping him is not going to be very easy. I expect there will be several other candidates who get into the race, and at the end of the day I think there’s a 50/50 chance they’ll dislodge him.”