With Priebus Surging, Is Michael Steele Heading For A Big Loss?

The race for the Republican National Committee chairmanship is heating up — with Wisconsin GOP Chairman Reince Priebus now having emerged as the frontrunner to defeat the incumbent Chairman Michael Steele.

The next big event to watch is this Monday, January 3, when the candidates will meet for a debate hosted by Grover Norquist’s Americans for Tax Reform.

In many ways, it seems odd that Steele could very well lose, after a cycle in which the GOP made big gains in offices large and small. And if there’s one thing we’ve learned about Steele, it’s that he has an impressive ability to weather scandals and gaffes that would fell others. But now, after all those gaffes and scandals, his opponents are now striking back in the open at election time.

Steele faces a crowded field of challengers that includes: Priebus, a former Steele ally whose smashing success at painting his state red this year has helped him shoot to the top; former Michigan GOP chair Saul Anuzis (also a previous 2009 RNC candidate, and the first challenger to get in this time); former Bush Administration official Maria Cino (who has been endorsed by Dick Cheney); former Missouri GOP chair Ann Wagner; and to top it all off, former high-ranking Steele aide Gentry Collins.As the most recent whip counts from Politico and National Journal show, Priebus is in first place with the support of 26 RNC voters, followed by Steele at 15 — an awful place to be for an incumbent — with Anuzis and Wagner at 11 apiece, Cino 6, and Collins 3.

Steele has been a media sensation for all the wrong reasons — that is, his endless gaffes, starting with when he belittled Rush Limbaugh and then immediately apologized early in his chairmanship, to his absurd book early this past year, to his disastrous recent policy statements such as seemingly opposing the Afghanistan war. Overall, Steele has tried to be everything to everybody, with his statements varying to please the present audience. And that hasn’t done much good in the long run (or the short run, either).

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

And then of course, there are the problems with the party’s finances. This was at its juiciest when the RNC fired a staffer over the reimbursement of a $2,000 bill at a bondage-themed nightclub. But the problems go much deeper. The party has boasted of raising over $175 million in the past cycle — but their over $19 million debt, which has grown over time with multiple amended filings, is a black eye on his record.

This all culminated in Steele’s political director Gentry Collins writing a scathing resignation letter — and then launching his own campaign for chair against his former boss.

In addition, the issue of race has popped up in the campaign. When Steele, the first African-American chair of the Republican Party, first announced his re-election campaign in November, he declared: “Who you elect as our next Chairman will speak volumes about our willingness to truly be the party of Lincoln.” This led to objections from RNC member Jim Bopp — a strong conservative who is now backing Priebus, while also calling for an anybody-but-Steele compact among members — and feuding between Bopp and Steele-backing Idaho GOP chair Norm Semanko.

The election will take place on January 20, and could potentially involve multiple rounds of balloting among the 168 voting RNC members, unti someone gets to the magic number of 85 votes. Back in January 2009, Steele won the chairmanship by a margin of 91-77 on the sixth ballot, in a final two-way showdown with former South Carolina GOP chairman Katon Dawson.

Late Update: Collins has announced he’s dropping out of the race.