Steele Battles Opponents in Fight to Maintain RNC Chairmanship

By Fred Lucas | January 4, 2011 | 4:01 AM EST

In this Nov. 2, 2010 file photo, Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele speaks during an election night gathering hosted by the National Republican Congressional Committee, in Washington. (AP Photo/Cliff Owen)

Washington ( – Michael Steele spent Monday afternoon doing what he has done for much of the past two years: fending off criticism about his job as chairman of the Republican National Committee.

“My record stands for itself,” Steele said during a debate against four other contenders for the RNC chairmanship at the National Press Club. “We won. I was asked to win elections. I was asked to raise money, $192 million over the last two years. We won. The fact that we’re here right now celebrating that win, I think says a lot about the record.”

During Steele’s term as chairman, the GOP has captured control of the House, several state houses, and captured big victories in off-year elections in 2009. But his tenure has been mired by gaffes, debt and fundraising problems. This makes his reelection by the 168-member Republican National Committee – a vote that takes place on Jan. 14 – challenging.

His opponents in the debate, which was sponsored by the Daily Caller, Americans for Tax Reform, and the Susan B. Anthony List, were former Michigan GOP Chairman Saul Anuzis, former RNC Deputy Chairwoman Maria Cino, former Wisconsin GOP Chairman Reince Priebus and former Missouri GOP Chairwoman Ann Wagner.

While his opponents did not attack Steele by name, they talked about the current condition of the national party infrastructure.

“It’s time for some tough love for the Republican National Committee,” Wagner said.  “How can an organization that has lost its credibility, is $20 million in debt, is steeped in mismanagement, distraction, and drama actually lead us into the next election cycle in 2012? I think it’s time for real change and a change of course in the Republican National Committee.”

Anuzis touted his management skills and fundraising experience in Michigan. He said in the dark years of 2006 and 2008, he was able to raise $29 million for the party in a blue state.

“What I bring to the table is a set of unique skills that basically covers the entire spectrum of all we need for the next chairman,” Anuzis said. “I think we need somebody who will make the trains run on time. I have the political skills.”

One of the questions in the debate concerned what issue would disqualify someone from being a Republican. Most of the RNC chairman candidates said a Republican must meet the three legs of the stool of social, fiscal, and national defense conservatism. Steele affirmed that conservative principles are important, but he cautioned against a litmus test.

“I see the job of the chairman, as the standard bearer, is to one, uphold that platform, yes,” Steele said. “But to recognize everyone who comes into this party will have some problem with this platform, and it’s your responsibility and opportunity to work with them and help them want to be active and want to assume leadership.

“We have to come to understand the importance of these principles and what they mean. But we cannot be a party that sits back with a litmus test that excludes,” he added.

Priebus took a somewhat firmer stance.

“We are about to walk off of a fiscal cliff, and I think that the RNC chairman ought to take a chance and promote that conservative platform every time that he or she has an opportunity to do it,” Priebus said. “If we don’t have a chairman who understands that being a Republican means something, that if you’re pro-abortion, pro-stimulus, pro-GM bailout, pro-AIG, then guess what, you might not be a Republican.”

Cino, who stressed her experience at the national level, said she would not need on-the-job training. She also said that Republicans have to get in touch with the grassroots that brought them to victory in 2010.

“When we lose our way on spending and taxes, when we lose our way on the deficit, we lose elections,” Cino said. “We lose voters at the ballot box. If we’ve learned anything from our friends the Tea Party, it is that we need to stay focused and we need to stay on message: cutting taxes, cutting government and reducing the deficit, it wins elections. It won in ’94. It won in 2010.”

Most of the candidates agreed on general policy matters. During a lightning round, they unanimously favored closed Republican primaries at the state level, the de-funding of Planned Parenthood, and each believed that 2008 vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin could win a general election.

Each candidate was asked to name his favorite book. Steele – struggling to maintain his leadership role despite the major victories in November – said “‘War and Peace.’ It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.”

The phrase, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” is the first sentence in Charles Dickens’ novel “A Tale of Two Cities,” published in 1859. “War and Peace” by Leo Tolstoy was published in 1869.