Michael Steele assumed the chairmanship of the Republican National Committee two years ago buoyed by hopes he would serve as a rhetorical counterbalance to President Obama.
Instead, Steele’s two-year tenure over the RNC has been marked by strife.
Steele is, against all odds, running for reelection as chairman. He has not yet said whether he will debate his many rivals at an event co-hosted by The Daily Caller and Americans for Tax Reform on Jan. 3.
Described as having the “worst year in Washington” by Chris Cillizza of the Washington Post, Steele’s problem at the RNC’s helm began early on.
Within months of starting his new job, Steele committed the first in a long series of well-publicized gaffes. He called Rush Limbaugh “ugly” and “incendiary,” then apologized. He said abortion was an “individual choice,” mimicking the rhetoric of pro-choice groups, angering social conservatives who had already feared he was too liberal.
In the same interview, Steele revealed he was redecorating his office because it was “way too male for me.” The total tab was $18,500.
Meanwhile, top congressional Republicans were shocked to learn Steele was undertaking a nationwide tour to promote his new book. He was also criticized for soliciting paid speaking engagements, as a key role of most party chairmen is delivering free speeches across the country.
Steele, 52, grew up in Washington, D.C. He studied for three years in seminary, but decided to become a lawyer instead of a priest. His rise in politics began in Prince George’s County, Md., where he was elected chairman of the local Republican party. In 2002, he became the first African American to win a state-wide campaign in Maryland.
Steele earned considerable goodwill with conservatives in the course of his losing Senate campaign to Democratic Sen. Ben Cardin in 2006, in part because of his cheeky television commercials.
Boosted by hopes he could become an able spokesman for the GOP, Steele vowed early on in his tenure as RNC chairman an “off the hook” publicity push in an interview with the Washington Times, even promising an outreach to “one-armed midgets.”
The push came off as goofy, more so when photos of Steele in ridiculous poses with RNC interns surfaced in December 2009.
Several months later, donors made known they were unhappy with Steele’s spending spree on private jets, limousines, pricey hotels and expensive meals.
In March, TheDC reported that the RNC had spent $1,946.25 at Voyeur West Hollywood, a bondage-themed nightclub featuring topless women dancers imitating lesbian sex. Additionally, Steele had discussed buying a private jet outright with RNC funds.
Earlier that month, a confidential fundraising presentation became public, showing the RNC mocking donors who could be enticed to donate with a generous application of “tchochkes.”
In July 2010, Steele called the war in Afghanistan “a war of Obama’s choosing” and seemed to argue it was unwinnable. The comment seemed to contradict the Republican Party’s official position on the war, and drew new calls for his resignation.
As election day approached, it became clear Steele’s RNC would not have the money to fund a vigorous get-out-the-vote operation. Questions swirled about the RNC’s hidden debt.
Steele himself went on a nationwide bus tour. Privately, Republicans were pleased he was out of the limelight.
En route, Steele stopped by Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. Those were places that did not hold any congressional seats at stake in the midterm elections but would be helpful for a reelection bid for RNC chairman.
Shortly after the election, Steele’s top political hand resigned, denouncing Steele and claiming the GOP could have picked up a significant number of additional seats had the RNC had the money for an effective get-out-the-vote operation.
Meanwhile, Steele had dispatched his former personal assistant Belinda Cook to Tampa, Fla. to head the party’s preparations for the 2012 presidential convention.
Cook set up shop in a waterfront mansion and hired her sister, niece, son, son’s college friend, and longtime aide, all at eyebrow-raising salaries.
After so many missteps, Steele’s allies have dwindled in number. Some have resigned to bid for Steele’s job. His former number one defender to the press, Doug Heye, is not part of Steele’s reelection bid. Neither is his chief of staff.
This is the first article in The Daily Caller’s week long series looking into the candidates vying for the chairmanship of the Republican National Committee leading up to the RNC Chairman’s debate The Daily Caller is hosting with Americans for Tax Reform on Monday January 3. To learn more about the debate, visit rncdebate.org.