It was reported over the weekend that Michael Steele, the current chairman of the Republican National Committee (RNC), will not be seeking another term. This is not a huge surprise. Steele had long been criticized for his role as the chairman of the RNC, and already several alternative candidates had tossed their hats into the ring.
Early in his term, Steele seemed to have the misimpression that his job as chairman of the RNC was to be the public face of the party. So, he did talk shows, radio interviews and the like, and he made gaffe (after gaffe after gaffe!). But that's not what the RNC chairman is supposed to do. He is not in charge of formulating party policy or even "spreading the word." His job above all else is to raise money, which the RNC then disperses to cash-strapped state party organizations, gubernatorial candidates, and upon occasion to the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) and the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC).
Steele's early gaffes were embarrassing, but mostly just for Steele himself. They also mostly disappeared, so I do not think they are why he has effectively been pushed out. Instead, it must be because he could not raise the cash. The following chart tracks total election year contributions raised by the RNC, NRCC, and NRSC since 2004, the first election cycle since the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act (aka McCain-Feingold) took effect.
As you can see, the last few years have not been pretty for the Republican campaign committees. Only the NRSC has improved relative to 2004, and back then it was considered the weak link in the party chain. The NRCC had a superb 2006 cycle, helping to minimize Republican losses that year, but really suffered in 2008. It has since come back, not entirely returning to 2006 levels, but coming close. The fact that Republicans are once again in the majority should contribute to its ability to raise funds.
Unfortunately, it was the RNC that was, far and away, the weakest in 2010, falling substantially off its margins from the previous three cycles. Additionally, the RNC had historically outpaced the NRCC and the NRSC, but this year the NRCC basically caught it in terms of contributions. As much as anything, this was a real surprise. The RNC historically raises much more money than either the NRCC or NRSC, but not in 2010 under the leadership of Michael Steele.
It's worth noting as well that the RNC troubles this cycle were actually worse than this chart demonstrates -- the high dollar donations were down this cycle, and the administrative costs per dollar raised increased.
In the end, this is what did Michael Steele in. He could not raise the money, and that just will not do moving forward. In the battle against Barack Obama and the Democrats in 2012, the Republicans are going to need all the money they can get:
Will President Obama be the first billion-dollar man?
He raised and spent $750 million in the 2008 campaign, and there is already speculation that the cash-collection operation for his 2012 reelection bid will crest the once-unimaginable sum of $1 billion raised. (That's a one and nine zeros. Nine!)
"It's not unrealistic at all, given the amount raised and spent in 2008 and the amount Republican interest groups and 527s will spend against him," said a former Obama administration official.
For a new chairman, Republicans should look for somebody who is not interested in making a big splash, who does not view his or her role as going on television to mix it up, who does not appear to be on one massive ego trip. Instead, the party needs a relentless fundraiser who is above all committed to doing the necessary, behind-the-scenes work to help the GOP match the fundraising juggernaut that will be Obama-Biden 2012. That person is not Michael Steele, and it is time to wish him farewell.
Update 6 PM. Oh good lord:
Controversial Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele, who last month presided over the GOP's biggest electoral gains since 1938, will announce tonight that he is running for re-election, Fox News has learned from two RNC members.
Ending weeks of rumors that he would not seek a second term, Steele plans to throw his hat into the ring during a conference call with RNC members at 7:30 p.m. ET, the sources said. Steele is said to be amused by false reports of his retirement and intentionally kept his plans secret for the last month in order to flush out competitors for the post, Fox has learned.
I for one am glad that he is "amused" because, when you get right down to it, it's all about Michael Steele, isn't it?
This might actually be a good test of the RNC to prove that it still has value moving forward. The national party committee system is a very old one indeed, going back over 100 years. A lot has changed in American politics since then; in particular the party organization itself is no longer a central part of the American political system. This is doubly true for the state party organizations, which are just shadows of their former selves, but nevertheless are still basically in charge of picking the RNC Chair.
Over the last 40 years, the national party organizations have found for themselves a new role in distributing money to get around (legally) the campaign finance regulations. This is not what they were originally meant to do, of course, and they bring certain strengths and weaknesses to this particular project. The success of Republican outside groups this cycle raises an interesting question: do Republicans really need the RNC moving forward, or could other groups accomplish this job just as easily? After all, it is amazing how little the RNC contributed to the historic Republican success last month. It's fair to ask whether they really are an essential part of the Republican campaign. If the RNC is unable to get rid of Michael Steele, we might go a long way toward getting our answer.