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.
And Steele also has a plum favor to dangle in front of RNC members who are on the fence about who to support: a spot on the Committee on Arrangements, the body assigned with planning and coordinating the Republican convention on Aug. 27, 2012, in Tampa.
The COA will have “at least one member from each state and the territories,” the committee’s website says. Steele so far has handed out 42 spots. The remaining committee positions form a key part of Steele’s final week strategy to try for a second term. At the very least, if Steele decides he cannot win, he can use his large bloc of votes to negotiate some kind of pay off – a key role or speaking slot a the convention perhaps – in return for throwing his votes to one of the other candidates.
“I agree that Steele is likely to lead on the first ballot with a shot at 50 votes. He’s working it hard and still making appointments to COA,” said one influential Priebus backer.
“The debate made it clear that Steele has far and away the most charisma of all the candidates, so he might be able to win over some votes with his personality at the meeting,” the Priebus supporter said. “He has a tough hill to climb, but don’t count him out. He is a fighter. The [committee] is unpredictable.”
RNC members who are working to solidify the “anyone-but-Steele” bloc – which by some accounts already is too big for Steele to garner the votes he needs to win – tried to downplay the prospect of Steele leading after one round of voting.
One anti-Steele RNC member said that if Steele did not lead after one ballot, it would be the first time an incumbent RNC chairman had failed to do so. Past chairman Mike Duncan had 52 votes on the first ballot in 2009 and led a pack of five total candidates, but dropped out after three ballots. Steele won on the sixth ballot.
But even one of the anti-Steele operatives was anxious about the dynamic that could take place when the voting starts inside that room, noting that it is always unpredictable what will happen when all the RNC members begin to vote.