Move over, Michael Steele. There’s a new GOP boss in Washington. On Friday, the 168 members of the Republican National Committee voted Reince Priebus, the young head of the Wisconsin Republican Party, its new leader. Priebus was part of the exodus that left Steele’s RNC, where Priebus was top legal counsel, protesting the way the former Maryland lieutenant governor managed the party’s image and finances. Steele’s prominence in the party was partly due to his race, becoming the most visible African-American Republican in the age of Obama. Much to the chagrin of Republican Party leaders, Steele’s wattage also came from his talent for never having his foot far from his mouth.
After seven rounds of voting, Priebus was elected to follow in the footsteps of sharp-elbowed political operatives like Lee Atwater and Haley Barbour and one future president, George H.W. Bush, who led the RNC during the tumultuous Nixon years.
Priebus’ place atop the Wisconsin state party positioned him well. In an election season with many bright spots for the Republican Party, the Badger State shone among the brightest. GOP businessman Ron Johnson was able to wrest a Senate seat away from Russ Feingold, long considered the liberal conscience of the Democratic Party.
Republicans also took the Wisconsin statehouse with county executive Scott Walker’s gubernatorial victory. Another feather in Priebus’s cap: retiring the Democratic bull David Obey and replacing him with Sean Duffy, the former district attorney and reality television star. All this in a state that has voted Democratic for president since 1988.
Not that Priebus’ victory was a coronation. Going into the vote, he was denounced as a stalking horse for the presidential aspirations of Barbour, the Mississippi governor. Henry Barbour, a lobbyist and political adviser to his uncle Haley, buttonholed committee members, praising Priebus’s fundraising prowess. (Later the figures offered by Barbour were challenges by members supporting other candidates). Others worried over how much blame Priebus should shoulder for the RNC’s troubles. Connecticut RNC chairman Chris Healy sent a memo calling Priebus, Steele’s “wingman.”
“[W]e need to make sure our next leader comes with as little of the damage caused by Chairman Steele. Either Preibus [sic] was part of the problem or clueless to it,” Healy wrote his colleagues at the end of December.
“Despite the noise—and Lord knows there was a lot of noise—despite all the difficulties, we won,” Steele said.
Priebus has an unenviable task ahead of him. The RNC faces a $20 million debt, the biggest hole in its history. The fundraising haul in 2010 was six times smaller than the total accumulated in 2006. According to a recent Washington Post analysis, major fundraisers are leaving in stampedes. The Wisconsin Republican will be entrusted with guiding the party against the Obama re-election machine, which is revving up to run a $1 billion presidential campaign.
In 2010, with Steele’s RNC floundering, a handful of major conservative fundraising organizations sprang into action. The likes of Karl Rove and Ed Gillespie, former Bush brass, raised tens of millions for Republican candidates. With Haley Barbour leading the Republican Governors Association, another source of funding came alive to keep the GOP flush. That outside cash and muscle and the tremendous Republican midterm success has raised questions within conservative circles about the need for the campaign group at all.
Steele wasn’t without his defenders, most pointing to the party’s resounding success in the midterm elections. Rhode Island committee member Joe Trillo said any company doing well wouldn’t replace its CEO.
“Let’s not change chairman, let’s keep it going. We want to win in 2012!” Trillo said. Steele didn’t run his shop like an average CEO. The most memorable of his many eyebrow-raising moments came when word broke that the RNC spent nearly $2,000 at a West Hollywood club described as “a bondage-themed nightclub featuring topless women dancers imitating lesbian sex.” Steele wasn’t there himself, but Republicans were angry that’s where there donations went. Heads rolled, but not Steele’s.
Steele will also be remembered for his cringe-inducing gaffes. Shortly after becoming chairman, he announced an “ off the hook” outreach program to go after the youth and minority vote by “applying the party’s principles to ‘urban-suburban hip-hop settings.’” The choice of words made Steele instant comic fodder.
Then Steele told GQ magazine that abortion is an “individual choice” and that he opposes a constitutional ban on abortion, an apparent flip-flop from the stance he took when he was running to lead the staunchly anti-abortion Republican Party.
Not finished, Steele called GOP superstar Rush Limbaugh an “entertainer” and labeled his rhetoric “incendiary” and “ugly.” Limbaugh fired back and Steele had to walk back his claims.
Steele wasn’t oblivious to the constant assaults, telling his critics at one point, “I’m telling them and I’m looking them in the eye and say I’ve had enough of it. If you don’t want me in the job, fire me. But until then, shut up. Get with the program or get out of the way.”
And who can forget when Steele spoke at a Connecticut fundraiser and said the war in Afghanistan was Obama’s choice?
“Keep in mind again, federal candidates, this was a war of Obama’s choosing. This was not something that the United States had actively prosecuted or wanted to engage in,” Steele said, seeming to forget that President Bush initiated the war in Afghanistan. Weekly Standard editor Bill Kristol wrote Steele a letter calling for him to resign.
When Steele announced his surprise run for another term, some members thought he was trying to play the race card when he told delegates on the call, “Who you elect as our next chairman will speak volumes about our willingness to truly be the party of Lincoln." Steele stayed true to himself to the end.
“Despite the noise—and Lord knows there was a lot of noise—despite all the difficulties, we won,” Steele said Friday in a concession speech.
“And now I exit stage right,” Steele said to cheers.
Samuel P. Jacobs is a staff reporter at The Daily Beast. He has also written for The Boston Globe, The New York Observer, and The New Republic Online.
Shushannah Walshe covers politics for The Daily Beast. She is the co-author of Sarah From Alaska: The Sudden Rise and Brutal Education of a New Conservative Superstar. She was a reporter and producer at the Fox News Channel from August 2001 until the end of the 2008 presidential campaign.