Republican National Committee chairman Michael Steele drew his first official challenger this morning when former Michigan GOP chairman and current Michigan committeeman Saul Anuzis declared his intentions on Twitter. "I’m in. I’m running for Chairman of the RNC," tweeted Anuzis, who posted a link to a letter to all RNC members. "My goal: take back the White House by bringing donors back, finding new ones, & having the best 72-hour effort ever."
Chairman Steele, beset by lackluster fundraising and a string of gaffes, will face stiff competition if, as reported, he wants to keep his job. While Anuzis surely won't be the only person competing, he enters the race in a strong position, respected by both conservative activists and members of the RNC, who are likely to elevate one of their own if they decide to replace Steele. Anuzis ran an unsuccessful campaign to be chairman in 2008 and continued to serve as a committeeman, so he's well known by the committee's other 167 voting members. Earlier this week, RedState's Erick Erickson floated Anuzis's name for RNC chairman.
RNC insiders tell THE WEEKLY STANDARD that currently about 40 to 50 RNC committee members back Steele, 40 to 50 someone other than Steele, with the remaining members undecided; 85 votes are needed to be elected chairman of the RNC at its meeting in mid-January. Support for Steele could implode--and implode rather quickly if Wisconsin chairman Reince Priebus, a member of Steele's inner circle who was the chairman of Steele's 2008 RNC campaign, decides to run. Another committee member who has reportedly expressed interest in the job is former national chairman Mike Duncan. Other RNC members and a few outsiders are considering a run.
Anuzis's pitch to be chairman is pretty simple and straightforward: The RNC "needs someone behind the scenes," Anuzis told me yesterday, who is "making the trains run on time and raising the money necessary to run the 72-hour [get out the vote] program."
Steele has faced criticism from a number of Republicans for not raising enough money to fully fund "get out the vote" operations. "I have no doubt that the RNC cost us several close races," one Republican campaign manager, who managed a statewide race this year, told me. "The 72-hour program was not funded to the extent it was in the past."
"It is clear that the high-dollar donors do not have confidence in the RNC, in particular the chairman," Mississippi committeeman Henry Barbour told THE WEEKLY STANDARD Thursday. "And until there's a change in the way things are done and the leadership, they're not coming back. And we have to have them in a presidential cycle to be successful."
While the overall amount of money raised by the RNC was high, Barbour explained, much of that money was spent on high-cost direct-mail fundraising. "So when you hear the chairman talk about how much money he's raised, what you don't hear him talking about is putting historic amounts of money into campaigns because they spent all of their money trying to go get more money," Barbour said. A fundraising report next week will shed light on just how bad the financial situation was, but even Steele's supporters admit that the "national party gave less to states than it had in recent years." While the RNC transferred $2 million to the National Republican Senatorial Committee, the Democratic National Committee was able to transfer three times as much cash to the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.
Why did the RNC's fundraising suffer this year? "Certainly the gaffes don't help," says Barbour. The gaffes of which he speaks are almost too numerous to list. A few highlights from the past two years: Steele called Rush Limbaugh’s show “ugly,” said Republicans may not be ready to lead (and predicted they wouldn't win the House), declared that white Republicans are "absolutely" scared of black people, speculated that the GOP base is anti-Mormon, attacked conservatives for “slammin’ and rammin” Sonia Sotomayor, and threatened to “come after” GOP moderates. "On the bright side, each gaffe seems to diminish the impact of the next one," National Review's Ramesh Ponnuru wrote in an article on Steele in December 2009.
But in July of this year, Steele went beyond a mere gaffe and encouraged candidates to campaign against the Afghanistan war. "
Yet, for that and for all the gaffes, Barbour suggests RNC fundraising flagged this year mostly because donors were concerned with the "management" and how "efficiently" the RNC was spending its money. "The fact that you're putting money into an island that doesn't have a voting member in Congress when we're trying to win control of Congress, that's all you have to know," said Barbour. The RNC transferred money to territories such as Guam and the Virgin Islands this year. (Steele is believed to have locked up support from all 15 delegates from the territories.) And that wasn't a one-time instance of money being spent poorly in the eyes of many donors. As Politico reported in February, "donors grumbled when Steele hired renowned chef Wolfgang Puck's local crew to cater the RNC's Christmas party inside the trendy Newseum on Pennsylvania Avenue, and then moved its annual winter meeting from Washington to Hawaii."
Anuzis says a big part of the problem was that Steele simply made a poor effort to raise money. "Whether it was not wanting to call those donors, not liking to call those donors, the major donor program was just not very well implemented," said Anuzis. "The first rule is that you're not going to get any money if you don't ask. I have talked to several major donors who were never asked, and I have talked to others in what many considered an inappropriate way, which was asking for major contributions by mail and telemarketing."
"I like Michael Steele. I consider him a friend," says Henry Barbour. "But right now, we do need to make a change."
We'll find out in January, or perhaps sooner, if a majority of RNC members feel the same way.