When former Maryland Lt. Governor Michael Steele was elected two years ago, he represented a dynamic and charismatic figure, something of a Washington outsider many in the Republican Party believed would provide a breath of fresh air for a party declining in popularity. But just two years later, it's the party's conservative base that's on the rise and RNC chairman Steele working to fight off critics as his own popularity has worn away.
On Monday, Steele faced some of his most ardent critics -- four energized and outspoken individuals all vying to unseat him.
Though the debate didn't offer many fireworks, the showdown between Steele and his rivals boiled down to a 4 vs. 1 contest that left Steele struggling to defend his record amidst blunt criticism from Reince Priebus, chairman of the Wisconsin GOP; Maria Cino, a Bush-era ambassador and organizer of the 2008 GOP convention; Saul Anuzis, former Michigan GOP chair; and Ann Wagner, former chairwoman of the Missouri GOP.
Before the debate even began, many predicted Steele's re-election was a long-shot. According to a poll by Politico, 88 of the RNC's 168 members say they oppose Steele and 55 of them say the wouldn't vote to re-elect him under any circumstances.
But Steele defended himself, pointing out that he had taken the reins of the RNC at a very glum moment in the party's history. "We couldn't find someone who would say that they were Republican, let alone run for [office]," he said, referring to the time of his election. "TIME magazine declared we were an endangered species in 2009 -- not that long ago."
Steele worked to take at least partial credit for the largely grassroots resurgence of conservative opposition to liberal Democratic policies and the party's recent midterm electoral success. "We did not have a lot volunteers out of Washington, but that was because we had 200,000 volunteers across the country, who made 45 million voter contacts," he said. "Our victory program began in January 2010. So to say we didn't fund our get-out-the-vote programs is a misnomer, because we really did. Your state might have gotten X amount in past cycles, but this year it may not have gotten that [same level] because we were playing in 50 states. I think we won in all 50 states this year.”
"We won," he declared at one point, unapologetic in the face of his opponents' critiques.
Under Steele's watch, the RNC is facing a $20 million budget shortfall -- a mismanagement of funds Steele promised to correct if elected to a second term.
Despite previously declaring the war in Afghanistan a "war of Obama's choosing," Steele said that the president's leadership in "the war" was one decision or stance of Obama's that he agreed with.
Policy questions seemed to dominate much of the debate, despite the role of the RNC chair being limited to fundraising and managerial tasks. Still, questions on abortion, the federal budget and gay marriage were raised by the Susan B. Anthony List, one of the debate's co-sponsors. Grover Norquist from Americans for Tax Reform, another co-sponsor, pointedly asked about the candidates' guns while the Daily Caller's Tucker Carlson asked about the candidates' preferred reading.
One of the biggest tasks for the next RNC chair will be to work with grassroots conservatives and tea party activists. Carlson cited Delaware Senate candidate Christine O'Donnell when asking where the various candidates would draw the line between supporting conservative candidates or more politically viable moderates in blue states. "Our chairman has to be an outspoken, unabashed conservative Republican," Priebus said. But none of the candidates hinted that the RNC should play favorites during primary elections.
“The primaries work, and the voters work. It’s always a mistake when somebody comes in and says this person is too conservative or this person is too whatever," Anuzis responded. "We have a system that works, and we ought to trust the voters. When we run like Republicans, we win. When we run like Democrats, we lose.”
So what will it take for GOP victory in 2012?
“Good turnout programs are nothing but words on paper without real funding behind them," Wagner remarked, a subtle jab at Steele referencing the complaints of Gentry Collins, a former RNC political director who publicly complained that the party's 72-hour GOTV effort had been left "largely unfunded."
"In 2012, Democrats will be much more motivated, and turnout will be higher. A 24-hour get-out-the-vote program is already too late with all the states that have early voting," Wagner said.
Meanwhile, Anuzis said the RNC currently faces “a moment of crisis," citing the organization's mishandled budget. "We have to raise $20 million before we start banking money for the next presidential race. . . . We need somebody who can make the trains run on time,” he said.
Priebus said the next chairman should be "working like a dog" to lure major donors, while Cino highlighted her own past work in managing projects for the party in the past, including her work overseeing the Bush/Cheney 72-hour GOTV effort in 2004.
Cino questioned how an organization steeped in "mismanagement, distractions and drama" could win in 2012. "I need no on-the-job training, because I’ve already done this job,” she added.
Outside of the debate, Steele encouraged RNC members to judge his record on the "only criteria that matter in this job -- fundraising, turnout and election results," he wrote in an op-ed for the Daily Caller. "Based on those metrics, the RNC has been more successful in the past two years than ever in its history."
The Daily Caller's analysis of the debate found Anuzis, Wagner and Cino making gains while Steele delivered a lackluster performance.
The Washington Post's Jennifer Rubin, on the other hand, seemed to think the debate yielded no clear winner. "It is hard to see how any Republican National Committee member after this debate would conclude that, by gosh, Steele's the only man for the job. However, it is equally the case that none of the challengers made much headway in distinguishing him or herself from the others," she wrote. "As in the past, the real politicking will be done quietly far from the C-SPAN cameras."
The most up-to-date whip count shows Priebus leading the pack with 30 votes, followed by Steele (15), Wagner (12), Anuzis (10), and Cino (6).
To view the full debate via C-SPAN, click here.