Politico December 13, 2010
"Norm would very much like to chair the RNC,""His major obstacle would be that he's not an RNC insider."
Michael Steele's decision on whether to seek another term as Republican National Committee chairman will finally offer a measure of clarity to a race that so far has been marked by uncertainty. But, equally important, it could put an end to an ongoing drama that has cast a shadow over the leadership of the ascendant GOP.
Steele is expected to disclose his plans during a conference call Monday evening with the 168-member party committee, and multiple GOP sources indicate that he's unlikely to run again. But the chairman has been silent and mostly out of view since last month's midterm elections and given little public indication of his plans. Given his unpredictability, Republicans said it's possible that Steele may try to launch a bid or even to delay the decision further. Fox News reported late Monday afternoon that Steele would get in the race and was planning to appear on the cable network's Greta Van Susteren show after the call.
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If he doesn't run, though, the immediate impact could be the entrance of one possible candidate -- and the exit of another.
Former Minnesota Sen. Norm Coleman, who now heads the GOP organization American Action Network, is eyeing a bid with a pitch centered around his ability to raise money for a committee that is more than $15 million in debt.
"Norm is leaning towards running, based on his ability to raise money and act as a national surrogate," said a source close to Coleman.
The Minnesotan has said previously that he wouldn't run as long as Steele was in the race. But that posture won't help him with the growing number of committee members who want to dump the chairman: He's not a member of the committee, which prefers to elevate from within to fill the party's top job.
"Norm would very much like to chair the RNC," said former Rep. Vin Weber (R-Minn.). "His major obstacle would be that he's not an RNC insider."
Former RNC Chairman Mike Duncan is a member of the committee -- he serves as the GOP committeeman from Kentucky -- but probably won't run if Steele bows out.
Duncan, who lost his reelection bid to Steele two years ago, unexpectedly showed up at a candidates' forum earlier this month but has told associates that he primarily wants to ensure that the incumbent doesn't win another term. The Kentuckian remains popular among many committee members and would get in the race if it seemed like the Stop Steele effort was flagging. But if Steele doesn't run again, there would be no need for a bulwark.
Already in the race or poised to run are Michigan GOP committeeman Saul Anuzis; Wisconsin Republican Chairman Reince Priebus; former RNC co-chairwoman Ann Wagner of Missouri; Gentry Collins, who was RNC political director until last month; and Maria Cino, a longtime Republican official backed by some top Bush-era officials. The contest will be decided in mid-January at the party's winter meeting.
The broader question in a post-Steele race would be where his supporters would land. While his base has been diminished in recent weeks amid a torrent of bad news about his tenure atop the committee, the chairman still has the backing of about 30 or so members, say insiders.
Priebus has close relationships with some of these members thanks to his time as Steele's general counsel. But those true Steele loyalists may not back Priebus, who quit his post and launched his party bid with some implicit criticism about the current administration.
Even as they highlight the party's fundraising difficulties and allude to Steele's high profile, the contenders have been careful to avoid any harsh shots at the chairman in large part because they want to woo his backers.
Few think that Steele's remaining supporters would move en masse to any one candidate.
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"It will set off a merry scramble for his votes," said David Norcross, a longtime member of the committee from New Jersey, of what it would mean if Steele opts out of a run. "Many of them, hard-wired to support Steele no matter what, probably have no idea where they want to go and in the end they likely will not break sharply for any one candidate."
One of Steele's more ardent supporters, Michigan GOP committeewoman Holly Hughes, wouldn't broach the idea.
"I pick, I stick and I don't deal with speculation," said Hughes. "My pick is Chairman Steele."
A likely scenario, for both the pro-Steele bloc and the rest of the committee, is an intense month of courtship with no rush to commit. Some of the current hopefuls have already been running for weeks, but public commitments have only trickled out.
With Christmas one week from Saturday, this is the last full week that the candidates will be able to devote to politicking. And the period between Christmas and New Year's Day is a traditionally slow time in politics.
"The first real movement [of support] won't come until after the first of the year," predicted Massachusetts committeeman Ron Kaufman.
Thanks to his presence on the committee, the support he enjoys from an influential group of members and the success Wisconsin Republicans had this year, many GOP insiders see Priebus as the man to beat. POLITICO has learned, he's getting a helping hand from Gov.-elect Scott Walker, who is calling his fellow GOP governors to lobby them on behalf of the Kenosha Republican.
Still, the chairmanship contest is a quirky, unpredictable process that is akin to congressional leadership contests. Relationships matter as much, if not more, than leadership potential or successful records. And, as Steele proved with his promises of support to the territories two years ago, deals are often cut in the process.
"It's wide open and anybody's ball game at this point," said Colorado GOP Chairman Dick Wadhams, who is backing Anuzis.
Were Steele to run again, he'd face an even more difficult version of what dogged Duncan's bid two years ago. While the incumbent would begin with a solid core of support -- for a multi-candidate field -- he'd have difficulty adding to his base in a race that is certain to include multiple ballots.