01.14.11

The Next Michael Steele

Republican bigwigs vote for a new party chairman Friday. With Michael Steele on the ropes, who’s likely to emerge as top dog? The Daily Beast previews the contenders. Plus, what black Republicans think about Steele.

Republican National Committee members are gathering in Michael Steele’s backyard Friday afternoon, hunkering down in a Maryland hotel to decide the fate of the controversial RNC leader. But the former Maryland lieutenant governor has little reason to feel comfortable, even with the home cooking.

According to early vote counts, Steele is on his way out the door. During his two years at the helm of the GOP fundraising machine, the 52-year-old sometime lawyer has been criticized by party elders for turning the RNC into a den of debt and delinquency. Remember that whole West Hollywood sex club fiasco?

Well, the 168 RNC members voting today certainly do. Here are the leading candidates to replace Steele. All are party insiders with deep experience in Republican organizing.

Reince Priebus
Reince Priebus, the Wisconsin Republican Party chairman, likely presents the strongest inside challenge to Steele. In December, Priebus resigned from his position as top legal counsel at the RNC to take a run at Steele. For some, the biggest knock on Priebus is his relationship to Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour and his political operative nephew Henry. Some critics, like right-wing blogger Dan Riehl, see Priebus as a mere stalking horse for Barbour’s presidential pretensions. Also joining Team Priebus is Republican big brain Paul Ryan, who was making calls for the candidate this week. Priebus also has the support of newly elected Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson, whose victory over liberal lion Russ Feingold in November was a highlight for the GOP.

Ann Wagner
Ann Wagner jumped into the RNC race early. If she can pull out a victory (or rival Maria Cino), she’ll be the first woman elected to head the RNC. As chairwoman of the Missouri Republican Party, she is credited with turning the state legislature from blue to red, winning statewide races and crucial votes for George W. Bush in 2000 and 2004. Coming off those victories, she became the RNC co-chairwoman before Bush appointed her to be ambassador to Luxembourg. In an interview with The Daily Beast Wagner gave a not-so-subtle dig to the chairman she hopes to replace and explained why she'll be better at raising money, "It's not just restoring a certain level of credibility in being good stewards of our donors' investments," she said, "but frankly just going out and making the ask." Wagner is still fighting an uphill battle. She’s got an ally in fellow Missourian, former U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft.

Maria Cino
Maria Cino, a lobbyist for the pharmaceutical industry and a former Bush administration official, is hoping to ride a number of prominent endorsements to victory in the RNC race. She honed her election skills as political director of Bush's 2000 campaign and later became deputy chair of the RNC, also tasked with political operations. Her work has brought her some powerful friends over the years—she has the backing of former Vice President Dick Cheney and recently scored a coveted endorsement from Speaker of the House John Boehner. It's unclear how much influence outside backing has on the more insular RNC, however. “Cino’s establishment cred could cut both ways,” Politico's Chris Frates wrote after she announced. “As a GOP insider and Pfizer lobbyist, Cino will likely take heat from the Tea Party wing of the party.

Saul Anuzis
Saul Anuzis is no stranger to the RNC race, having lost to Michael Steele in 2009. The former chairman of the Michigan Republican Party remains a GOP heavyweight and is popular with the conservative grassroots. Anuzis has pledged to rededicate the RNC to fundraising, where it's seen an exodus of major donors under Steele. "I think that overall my message is that different circumstances and different challenges require a different chairman," Anuzis told The Daily Beast in a recent interview. "In the last cycle we were looking for a national spokesperson, somebody to be the face and voice of the party, but this cycle we need someone to make the trains run on time and get the money to implement our ground game." Anuzis is still considered an underdog in the race, if a formidable one.