Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele defended his track record and fended off attacks from four challengers vying for his position in a debate held at the National Press Club on Monday afternoon. Sixteen RNC members, dozens of journalists and hundreds of other observers crowded into a packed ballroom to watch the five contenders for RNC Chairman lay out their respective visions for leading a robust party committee to victory in the 2012 election cycle. Steele was flanked on stage by four rivals: Wisconsin GOP Chairman and former ally Reince Priebus, RNC veteran Maria Cino, former Michigan party chair Saul Anuzis, and former RNC Co-Chair and Ambassador to Luxembourg Ann Wagner. Steele’s ex-political director, Gentry Collins, was expected to participate, but withdrew his candidacy on Sunday.
While each challenger each detailed his or her qualifications for the position, an uncharacteristically subdued Steele invited the committee’s 168 voting members to view next week’s election as a referendum on his stewardship. “My record stands for itself. We won,” he said. “I was asked to raise money, and I raised $190 million over the past two years. And the fact that we’re standing here right now celebrating that win says a lot about the record.” An unofficial whip count by Politico suggests that Steele has lost the support of more than half of the committee, deeply complicating his path to re-election.
His opponents saw it differently, arguing – often implicitly – that Republicans made big gains in 2010 in spite of what they called a troubled and cash-strapped RNC. Wagner was least sparing in her criticism, calling for the application of “tough love” to an organization she said was “steeped in mismanagement, distractions, and drama” under Steele’s leadership. Anuzis referenced the RNC’s $20 million debt in stating bluntly that the committee had reached a “moment of crisis,” a charge Steele dismissed. “I'm a glass-half-full kind of guy. I don't see the crisis as some see it," he said.
Each candidate emphasized the importance of strong fundraising – a point raised most often by Anuzis and Cino, who indirectly suggested that Steele’s two-year, $190 Million haul was inadequate. “There’s fundraising, then there’s everything else,” Anuzis said of his prospective priorities as chairman. Cino said the committee must be prepared to raise at least $400 million in the next cycle in order to compete in the President Obama’s “billion dollar [re-election] campaign.”
Priebus cited strong gains in Wisconsin on his watch as a blueprint for success, touting Badger State Republicans’ pick ups of the Governorship, a Senate seat, two House seats, and both houses of the state legislature last year. He pledged to be a leader “who will work like an absolute dog” to raise sufficient funds and organize a winning operation. He also frequently played to the party’s conservative base, asserting that the RNC is ideally “not in competition with the conservative movement. We are part of the conservative movement.”
Steele downplayed the importance of ideological purity, arguing that the role of the RNC Chairman is not to apply exclusionary “litmus tests” or to stray too far into policy debates. “As I’ve been reminded, [the RNC doesn’t] do policy. We do politics.” Nevertheless, all five candidates were asked to describe their positions on hot-button issues like abortion to traditional marriage – neither of which prompted much disagreement among the group.
The event concluded with a “lightning round” of questions, which proved entertaining, if mostly frivolous. All five candidates endorsed a “party unity pledge,” perhaps better described as the Charlie Crist rule, requiring GOP primary losers to return donations from Republican contributors if they choose to run on another party’s ticket. The panel also reached unanimity on the rectitude of de-funding Planned Parenthood, the superiority of closed primaries, and the electability of Sarah Palin in a general election.
Members of the Republicans National Committee are expected to elect the next chairman by January 14th. Monday’s forum was hosted by Americans for Tax Reform and the Daily Caller, and was co-sponsored by the Susan B. Anthony List.
You can watch the video here.