GOP Wins Only Intensify Criticism Of Michael Steele

November 11, 2010 7:02 a.m.

While most Republicans are jockeying for promotions in the new leadership structure in the wake of massive electoral victories, RNC chair Michael Steele is facing down a bunch of his fellow Republicans who want to see him start collecting unemployment. Steele hasn’t committed to running for a second term as the head of the party, but already Republicans embarrassed by his first year in office are lining up to stop him if he tries.

The serious efforts began even before the election that saw the Republicans sweep into power in the House. As Steele was on this cross-country “Fire Pelosi” bus tour aimed, he said, at boosting turnout in Congressional races, a group of “well-known Republicans” was pressuring former RNC chair and current Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour to take Steele on in an RNC leadership race.

After the election, Steele told TPMDC on a press call that he understands it’s been a rocky road at the RNC this year. But he said he’s ready to do better.

“The learning curve was steep and quick,” he said, “but I got it.”

He might have it, but there are plenty of Republicans that don’t want him to keep it. Since the election — in which Republicans did in fact “fire Pelosi” — pressure on Steele has only ramped up.A Barbour is still at the center of the chatter. But it’s not Haley this time. Rather, his nephew Henry Barbour, a member of the RNC, is said to be leading the efforts to oust Steele.

“I like Mike Steele, and I’ve worked hard to support him as chairman,” Henry told the New York Times this week. “I do think we have to make a change, and I have actively talked to some other members in the last week or so and encouraged a few of them to consider running.”

He’s not the only one that wants a change. The Times reported that likely House Speaker John Boehner and Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell “would prefer a new chairman as well.”

And Connecticut GOP chair Chris Healy, who isn’t running for RNC chair yet, is emerging as the most vocal of the Steele critics.”I think at some point someone has to step up and say the emperor has no clothes. I’m more than willing to do that,” Healy told Roll Call yesterday.

The ambivalence toward Steele from his Republican colleagues is not a huge surprise. His term in office has been a cavalcade of embarrassing gaffes and scandals from Steele’s caught-on-camera claim in June that Afghanistan was a “war of [President] Obama’s choosing” to that time in March when a staffer was caught dropping $2,000 in RNC money on a party at LA’s hottest bondage-themed nightclub.

[TPM Slideshow: Best Boss Ever? Michael Steele & The RNC Interns]

But it’s not just his gaffes that have people concerned. The AP reported recently that Steele upset RNC insiders by sending cash to state parties to hire more than 350 staffers. And, he rocked the boat when he personally accompanied the RNC’s donations to Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands, where Republicans can vote for the RNC chairman, but their House members’ votes don’t count toward the passage of legislation

What happens next is unclear. The RNC next meets to choose a leader in mid-January — a meeting that could be dramatic if Steele squares off against a serious challenger. So far, several names have floated to the surface in press reports — including Wisconsin GOP chair Reince Priebus, who ran Steele’s 2009 chairman campaign — creating the potential for a brawl in January. But despite all the criticisms, no frontrunner to replace Steele has emerged.

And that could be the secret to Steele’s success. While the establishment has been fretting about his leadership of the RNC, Steele has been trying to turn himself into one of those outsider types with whom the GOP base is so smitten as of late. Steele has often compared himself positively to former DNC chair Howard Dean, whose “50 state strategy” endeared him to many outsider Democrats even as party figures in Washington worried about his tenure at the top of the party.

As the Baltimore Sun reports, Steele may have the most powerful of the outsider Republicans on his side. Sarah Palin — who did joint campaign stops with Steele this fall — could be openly in Steele’s corner if he decides to run again. That kind of cred could help Steele greatly and keep establishment figures worrying about what their chair might do next.

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