Steele eyes grassroots

Salena Zito

5/3/2009 12:00:38 AM - Salena Zito

Michael Steele wanted to rebuild the Republican Party after two crushing national election defeats because he has “a passion for a party I believe in.”

“When the opportunity presented itself,” Steele said in his office, just blocks from the Capitol, “I saw it as a chance to help take the elephant by the tail and turn it around in a new direction.”

That direction is not turning away from principles and values that have defined the party since 1854 but “in a direction that those principles and values can be relevant in the 21st century.”

At first, Steele, 50, might seem an unlikely figure to lead the GOP out of its political wilderness. Yet his scrappiness — in life and in politics — may be perfect for the task.

Born in Maryland, he grew up in Washington; his mother worked as a laundress, his stepfather as a truck driver, to raise him and a sister.

He majored in international relations at Johns Hopkins University, then spent three years as a seminarian at Villanova University. He left before taking vows as a priest and instead earned a law degree from Georgetown University.

The first black to win statewide office in Maryland (lieutenant governor, 2003-07), he is the first to chair the Republican Party — and only the second to head either party.

He beat five rivals in six rounds of voting in January to be the 63rd GOP chairman.

He won, he believes, by reminding committee members that he began at the party’s grassroots, as a committee chairman.

“I have knocked on doors and licked envelopes. I know what it takes to win an election from the ground up,” he said. “I also know what it is like to have a lot of those doors slammed in my face.”

He isn’t just kidding, after all, when he talks about the challenge of being a black Republican in the District of Columbia.

Parallels to a Democrat

The past four months have brought highs and lows.

Steele raised an impressive $6.7 million in March, far more than Democratic Chairman Tim Kaine — but a string of media mini-gaffes sent him into a month of self-exile.

Steele’s challenge is not unlike one that faced another Democratic chairman: When Howard Dean took over his party in early 2005, it had won no more than 16 states in the last two presidential elections; morale was rock-bottom.

Everyone questioned if the party could ever again be a national player.

The parallels are not lost on Steele: “I so empathize with Dean at that moment. I remember watching him go through that purging in 2005, and it wasn’t pretty.”

Dean wrested control from three divisive party factions — its “Clintonista” establishment, its moderate Democratic Leadership Council and its far left. His best move was to couple the Machiavellian thinking of party figures Rahm Emanuel and James Carville with pro-life, pro-business, pro-Second Amendment candidates who won in key areas of the country.

“They brought them to our turf, played and won … a place they were not expected to win,” said Steele, a former college fencer who favors sports metaphors.

Similarly, he intends “to take the party where we have not gone before … to be present to the people of this country where they are. We are not going to sit back and tell them to come to us.”

Democratic strategist Steve McMahon has worked with Dean for years and has known Steele since his days as a Maryland Republican committeeman. He says the new GOP chairman must adopt a 50-state program, as Dean did, to get his party back on track.

“His challenge is to recapture independents without pushing out the base,” he explained. The hardest part is pushing against the party’s nay-sayers who favor winning here and there rather than taking time to build for the future.

“Steele has to remain focused,” McMahon said. “Do that, and the GOP will compete not just regionally but across the board again.”

A smart strategy

In the 2008 election, Democrats expanded their base with growing demographic groups — young voters, Hispanics, blacks, suburbanites — while Republicans contracted demographically and geographically.

“We have states like Indiana, North Carolina and Ohio where we were competitive and now we are not, and that is a big concern,” Steele admitted.

To rebuild, he wants state chairmen to think locally: “Everyone needs to pay attention to whether they are recruiting good candidates, establishing a solid farm team, and raising money in their own states. We will take care of the national races from here.”

It’s a smart strategy, according to Villanova University political scientist Lara Brown.

“Adopting a small-government, states-rights, individual-freedom message would be a great beginning,” she said. Updating Newt Gingrich’s 1994 “Republican Revolution” compact would help, too, as would recruiting good candidates.

“He should privately go and win back the moderates on Wall Street, Main Street, and raise as much money as he possibly can,” Brown said.

Pennsylvania’s a key

Steele absorbed a setback last week when Pennsylvania’s Arlen Specter defected to the Democrats, giving them a near-filibuster-proof majority in the U.S. Senate and leaving the state without a Republican U.S. senator.

State party Chairman Robert Gleason says his focus, like Steele’s, is on winning the U.S. Senate and governor’s races in 2010 — not on Specter.

“We have more staff on the ground earlier this cycle than we ever did before,” Gleason said. He is working with Steele to build a solid state party staff in preparation for all races, including this year’s state Supreme Court elections.

“Right now, we have 10 county executive directors,” he said. “We plan on having 20 by the end of the year.”

Pennsylvania remains very important to the national party, Steele said, despite the Democrats’ lopsided advantage in voter registration and election victories.

He insists this is “absolutely” the right time for Republicans to get “back on track” in the Keystone State. “With or without Specter, that was always the plan.”

“In the past, we would have gone along with the same playbook and not moved forward,” he said. Now, Gleason is adjusting the state party’s strategy.

Steele believes Democrat-blue Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Virginia offer opportunities to test the GOP’s messaging and strategy, to see if a 50-state program is in its future.

“We want to see how effective we can be … in coming back, beginning in these states,” he said.

Steele refuses to predict if 2010 will be a comeback year but insists Republicans will gain seats.

“This is a long process,” he said, “but done right, it is a lasting process.”