The months leading up to an election always involve a rush of frantic activity. There are key states to visit and swing voters to court. And so, late this summer, Michael Steele was paying timely visits to crucial battlegrounds . . . in Guam, the U.S. Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico, and the Northern Mariana Islands. Perhaps those aren’t considered key states in the elections that most Republicans care about, the 2010 midterms. But each of those territories does have voting members on the Republican National Committee (RNC), and if Steele wants to get reelected as party chairman next January, it’s not a bad idea to travel to those places, disburse funds, and hobnob with local officials—even if it is odd for a party chair to visit remote islands while critical elections on the mainland are just around the bend.
It might seem preposterous that Steele could be thinking about another term as RNC chair. His tenure has been marked by a parade of cringe-inducing remarks: In his first 30 days alone, he offered “slum love” to Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal and vowed to improve the GOP’s image among “one-armed midgets.” His fundraising efforts have been so anemic that the RNC has had to scale back its all-important get-out-the-vote operations this fall. Steele has been roundly mocked by the D.C. establishment—Time has called him “comical” and “irrelevant”—and many Republicans agree that if their party makes dramatic gains in November, it will be despite his efforts, not thanks to them. And yet, for all that, there’s evidence that Steele is positioning himself to emerge even stronger after the midterms. “There’s how the political establishment views Steele and how members of the committee view him,” says one RNC member. “A lot of folks don’t understand the difference—but it’s monumental.” Is it possible that, against all odds, Michael Steele is a far savvier politician than anyone imagined?
Take, for instance, Steele’s current 48-state “Fire Pelosi” bus tour. As with many things Steele does, this one looked like a debacle from the onset. CNN pointed out that Steele was spending much of his time in congressional districts that aren’t even in play. Many of the prominent conservatives he was expected to appear with—such as Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell and Florida senatorial candidate Marco Rubio—made themselves scarce when his bright red bus rolled into town. Conservatives gripe that his time would be better spent raising much-needed funds for hotly contested races. “ ‘Fire Pelosi?’ She’s already going to be fired! We know we’ll take back the House,” grumbles one Republican official. “Go campaign for the Senate—or some place you’re needed.”
Steele maintains that his bus tour is intended to fire up Republican ground troops around the country: “We’ve been able to bring in new volunteers, people who will make phone calls—the reception we’ve gotten has been very strong,” says RNC spokesman Doug Heye. But it’s also true that the tour doesn’t hurt Steele’s chances of sticking around at the RNC next cycle. As he travels from state to state, Steele has been meeting with RNC members—the state chair and national committeemen and women—taking them out to dinner, riding with them on his bus. And these people, not his critics in Washington, will be voting for the party chair come January. “Those elections are in large part about personal relationships,” says one RNC member—and few chairs have put as much effort into building those relationships as Steele has.
Steele’s career at the RNC has been marked by a canny ability to weather adversity. Few insiders gave him a chance of becoming chair in the first place; when he first declared his candidacy, Karl Rove reportedly scoffed to an associate, “It’s just not going to happen.” But Obama had just won a historic election and, for many Republicans, the symbolism of nominating a black party leader of their own was too tantalizing to pass up. As Newt Gingrich gushed, “He clearly represents the new, emerging Republican Party.” (Especially since, in the final round of balloting, Steele beat out a state chairman from South Carolina who had once been a member of an all-white country club.)
It didn’t take long, however, for conservatives to regret their decision. First Steele blasted Rush Limbaugh as “ugly” and “incendiary,” touching off a distracting intra-right feud. Then he told GQ that abortion was an “individual choice.” There was also the time he implied that Obama had started the war in Afghanistan. And then, of course, came the high-profile book tour for a book no one was even aware Steele had been writing.
What really worried Republicans, though, was the fact that the RNC seemed to be in disarray. The national committee is supposed to do the heavy campaign lifting: assembling voter lists, setting up phone banks, coordinating messaging. When Steele arrived, he dismissed many longtime staffers and brought in pals from his days as lieutenant governor in Maryland, some of whom, critics carped, were amateurish. Steele’s handpicked finance director, for example, reimbursed a group of young donors who spent $1,946 at a bondage-themed club in West Hollywood. And Steele’s spending habits raised eyebrows: His RNC doled out unprecedented amounts on limos, catering, and flowers—as well as $18,500 to overhaul the dark wood furniture at headquarters. (“This is gonna sound weird,” he told GQ, “but it’s way too male for me.”) Not only that, but Steele would often wing it on policy pronouncements without checking in with Hill Republicans—a habit that earned him a scolding from Senator Lamar Alexander behind closed doors.
Those missteps helped scare away major donors, who decided Steele couldn’t be trusted. (It doesn’t help that, like many politicians, Steele has a visceral distaste for getting on the phone to fund-raise.) By September, the RNC had just $4.7 million in cash on hand—one-third of the Democratic National Committee’s haul—and had to pare back its turnout and targeting programs for the first time in a decade.Steele and the RNC have gotten brutal press treatment over the past two years—some of it fanned by Rove’s allies, who never forgave Steele for sweeping aside longtime Bush hands. But, within the RNC itself, Steele has worked hard to placate his critics. “From a crisis-management standpoint, he’d handle his mistakes well,” says one RNC member. “He’d call up members, say, ‘I kind of blew this, here’s what I meant,’ and put it away.” Indeed, those who know him say that, verbal slips aside, Steele is conscientious about his public image—his office has been vigilant, for instance, about trying to quell leaks to the press.
And, as always, Steele has been able to count on a generous helping of luck. Republican voters are particularly riled up about Obama this year, and that means state party organizations—which would otherwise be winded by the shortfall in RNC funds—can count on hordes of eager volunteers. What’s more, outside groups have been pitching in with the Republican ground game. American Crossroads, a group associated with Rove, is planning to spend $50 million on ads and swing-state activities, including $10 million on get-out-the-vote efforts. The Republican Governors Association, led by Haley Barbour, is set to spend $65 million on the election. True, these groups aren’t a perfect substitute for the RNC—the RGA is only operating in states with gubernatorial races. But they’ll almost certainly help compensate for Steele’s errors. And, since Republicans are going to have a huge election year no matter what, Steele will be poised to take credit.
In early August, Politico uncovered a strange RNC memo showing Steele trying to seek an audience with several foreign ambassadors. It didn’t make sense in terms of electoral politics—foreigners don’t vote and can’t donate. But it makes more sense when you consider that Steele clearly enjoys the perks of his job, and loves being a mover and shaker. “Ultimately, he’s out for himself,” says one state chairman. “You see that again and again.”
Steele will have an uphill battle running for reelection at the RNC. Establishment Republicans are horrified at the thought that he could be the face of the GOP in a presidential election year, when one ill-timed interview could derail a campaign. Some Republicans predict that, after the midterms, the old guard will try to coalesce around a rival candidate to unseat him—names floated include ex-RNC Chairman Mike Duncan and former Senator Norm Coleman. But Steele could be surprisingly tough to dislodge. All he needs is the backing of 85 RNC members, and he has assiduously courted the support of voters in places like Guam and the U.S. Virgin Islands, amassing a sizeable bloc. Besides, it’s hard to imagine that he’ll ever be able to land another job as prestigious or as, well, fun as this one. He’s not likely to go quietly—he never does.
Bradford Plumer is an assistant editor of The New Republic. This piece will run in the October 28, 2010, issue of the magazine.