Cliff Owen/AP Photo
Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele.
Cliff Owen/AP Photo
The campaign to oust Michael Steele as Republican National Committee chairman began in earnest Wednesday at a Washington forum of his would-be successors.
For the first hour, the candidates avoided the elephant in the room before a question from the audience finally forced them to explain, in their opinion, why Steele must go.
In a word: money, as in Steele hasn't raised nearly enough of it, and the RNC's chief administrator this week acknowledged the committee had a "cash-flow challenge." Each of the candidates vying to replace Steele vowed to focus on fundraising as his or her top priority for 2012.
The forum was hosted by FreedomWorks, a conservative Washington-based group that closely coordinates grass-roots efforts with the Tea Party movement.
Each candidate played nice, at first, expressing kind regard for Steele the man before skewering Steele the chairman as a poor fundraiser. They also suggested that he's incapable of building an effective political machine and that he's a media hound.
First up was former U.S. ambassador Ann Wagner, a former RNC co-chair, who didn't mention Steele directly but addressed his failings, both real and perceived, by implication:
"I believe it's important that we raise the funds that are needed. I don't believe it's been done. We have to have good management, ethical management; good leadership that comes from the very, very top. …You have to hire good political operatives. … And you have to have to be a good communicator."
Next was Steele's former political director, Gentry Collins, who resigned last month in a huff and accused his ex-boss of mismanagement and of letting RNC's base of major donors "wither." Collins said Steele was "a fine man" who had "always been good to me personally."
Then he pivoted: “The party under his leadership failed to raise the money that it’s going to require to defeat Barack Obama. … It’s going to take, in my estimation, between $400 and $425 million. ... When you think about the most effective RNC chairmen, most have come out of a professional political background, not treating the RNC as their own political campaign."
Former Michigan GOP Chairman Saul Anuzis, who ran against Steele nearly two years ago, said:
We are in a situation where we need a different type of leader for a different type of challenge. We're going to have to raise more money than we ever have before, and we have to put together a better ground operation than we have before… This is a new job under new circumstances.
Also participating was Mike Duncan, a committee member from Kentucky, who is trying to recapture the chairmanship he held prior to Steele's election in early 2009.
Others considering bids who didn't participate include Wisconsin GOP Chair Reince Priebus and Maria Cino, a former deputy RNC chairwoman and Bush administration appointee. CNN has reported that Cino has received the support of former Vice President Dick Cheney and other top Bush advisers, who plan to hold a fundraiser for the 527 group Cino formed last week to explore a bid.
Steele's term is up in January. He hasn't said whether he plans to seek reelection, but much of the party leadership has turned against him.
When Steele took the job at the start of 2009, the RNC had a $23 million surplus. It raised nearly $80 million this year but has spent all of it — a good deal of it in states that lacked competitive races. He also maxed out the committee's $15 million credit line.
Citing an example that troubled many party leaders, Anuzis said at the forum that the RNC's limited coffers this fall forced the Republican Governors Association into the RNC's traditional role of funding races in some key states.