The casual observer may be forgiven for thinking that Michael Steele will be a non-factor this Friday when the Republican National Committee gathers to select its chairman for the next two years.
They would be mistaken.
Steele, the current chairman who has been beset by two years of almost continuous controversy and gaffes, is widely assumed to have no chance at winning a second term. But that outcome is not a lock, despite the fact that key Republicans have been working tirelessly to ensure Steele is defeated.
Based in part on the insularity and murkiness of the RNC election process, and partly on Steele’s built in advantage as an incumbent, many of the most informed RNC members and observers believe that he is very likely to have the most votes after the first ballot Friday.
“I think that’s long been the expectation. He’s the incumbent and still has a strong base of support,” said Saul Anuzis, who is one of the top candidates for chairman running against Steele.
“The issue is how big is that number,” Anuzis told The Daily Caller, referring to Steele’s vote total on the first ballot. “Over 60 … could signal stronger than expected results. Is it in the mid 50s? That confirms he probably can’t make up the 35 [plus] votes he needs to win. Or will he fall below 50, which would signal the committee clearly is looking for an alternative.”
Henry Barbour, a national committee man from Mississippi who has endorsed Wisconsin GOP Chairman Reince Priebus, said in an e-mail to all committee members recently: “I expect Chairman Steele is likely to lead on the first ballot this year.”
The expectation is still that Steele will lose support after the first ballot. But seeing his name in the lead after one round of voting will likely surprise some outside observers. Even the most ardent Steele foes remained uneasy in recent days.
There are 168 RNC members who will have a vote, so the next chairman will have to get to 85 votes to win the election. But there are four candidates running to unseat Steele, so the voting is all but certain to go on for multiple ballots until those with the fewest votes drop off.
The large field also benefits Steele in that it will allow him to be the front-runner after the first round of voting, since the votes that are against him are split among the other candidates.
The latest whip count by National Review accounts for 103 of the 168 votes, and gives the most committed votes to Priebus, with 36 to Steele’s 27. Anuzis has 14, and is tied with former Bush administration ambassador to Luxembourg Ann Wagner, who has 14. Long-time Republican operative Maria Cino has 12.
Steele has been able to woo – some would say buy – votes through showering money and attention on delegates on such far-flung delegations as those in Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands, Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, and American Samoa. These five territories have three votes each, and were a key to Steele’s winning the chairmanship the first time in 2009.