Steele opponents now confident they can keep him from second term

Jon Ward Contributor
Font Size:

Key Republicans hoping to prevent Michael Steele from another term as chairman of the Republican National Committee, who just a week ago were anxious they might not be able to stop Steele, are now confident he will be defeated.

There is still no consensus candidate to run against Steele. But that no longer worries Steele’s adversaries, who told The Daily Caller that they believe the embattled chairman does not have the support he needs to win 85 votes when the RNC’s 168 members vote on Jan. 11.

Sentiments among Steele’s enemies – and there are many in the GOP – changed dramatically over the past week. Barely more than a week ago, there was grave concern that no clear front runner existed who would have the support of a majority of RNC members.

The thinking then was that quick decisions were needed: given Steele’s efforts to lock up support from key blocs by visiting and giving money to different constituencies within the RNC, a formidable opponent was needed by the end of last week, or else time would be running out.

But as many RNC members head to San Diego Monday for a meeting of the Republican Governors Association, sentiments have changed. Though sources would not comment on what specifically changed over the last several days, they feel far more confident that Steele can and will be shown the exit.

“A month ago most thought he could not be beaten,” said one Republican who is involved in the effort to find an alternative. “Today most think he cannot win.”

Steele has yet to announce his intentions, and sources close to the chairman say it is not guaranteed that he will run for another term. Certainly other options exist, such as signing a contract with a cable TV channel and writing a book.

Steele aides did not respond to questions about their progress in counting votes. The most common estimate is that the chairman started out after the Nov. 2 midterm election with between 30 and 50 votes in his corner.

The confidence of Steele’s opponents suggests that a week of intensive phone calling and pulse taking has found that enough RNC members are committed to voting against Steele that he cannot get to 85 votes.

“Based on my calls over the last few days, I would have to say there is a growing consensus there should be change,” said Saul Anuzis, the former chairman of the Michigan Republican Party, who ran against Steele two years ago.

Yet there is no guarantee that Steele – whose ability to last an entire two-year term is itself a feat given the number of gaffes and scandals he has withstood – could not pull out a surprise victory.

If he does run, a big part of his public relations push – which has limited impact on the insular world of RNC voting members – would be to play the underdog.

“Michael has done a pretty good job of making an alliance with Sarah Palin and has really styled himself as the outsider, the Tea Party candidate,” said one Republican who is not directly involved in the matter but has longstanding ties and intimate knowledge of the RNC. “And that’s positive. He’ll try to style this election as the insiders trying to push out the outsider.”

But the two Washington figures who would be most quickly targeted by Steele as the Machiavellian types working for his defeat – Karl Rove and Ed Gillespie – have been careful not to be too forceful in their involvement, sources said.

“It can’t be seen primarily as their candidate. If they’re part of a broader group that’s pushing another candidate, that’s fine,” the Republican source said. “But if it were seen as primarily their candidate, I think that would be a negative.”

Most RNC members are not elected officials and do not like the idea of outsiders meddling in their affairs. Thus, Rove and Gillespie, former top advisers in the Bush White House, have been involved in trying to find the best option to defeat Steele, but are not trying to impose their will.

The list of potential candidates to run against Steele is still rather lengthy. Besides Anuzis, other potentials include Wisconsin GOP Chairman Reince Priebus, former RNC Chair Mike Duncan, Pennsylvania GOP Chairman Rob Gleason, RNC Co-Chairwoman Jan Larimer, Connecticut GOP Chairman Chris Healy, former North Dakota GOP Chairman Gary Emineth, California GOP Chairman Ron Nehring, and former RNC Deputy Chairwoman Maria Cino.

A run by Priebus would be remarkable, given that he is the RNC’s general counsel and has been considered to be an ally of Steele. Priebus told The Weekly Standard on Friday that he has “been getting a lot of phone calls” encouraging him to run.

The effort to find a viable alternative to Steele in recent weeks has led to some farfetched speculation, causing some to float Palin’s name as a potential challenger to Steele. Another high profile name mentioned more than once has been that of former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, younger brother to former President George W. Bush.

Jeb Bush told TheDC that he is in no way contemplating a run for the position.

Email Jon Ward and follow him on Twitter