Facing long odds in his reelection bid, Michael Steele defended his two-year term as chair of the Republican National Committee at a debate Monday afternoon, arguing that his success was illustrated by the outcome of the midterm elections.
"My record stands for itself," Steele said. "We won."
Steele's opponents - former Michigan party chairman Saul Anuzis, former RNC official Maria Cino, Wisconsin state party chairman Reince Priebus and former ambassador Ann Wagner - shied away from attacking Steele by name during the nearly two-hour debate. But there was little mistaking who Wagner blamed when she said the organization was "steeped in mismanagement," or who Anuzis believed had brought the debt-ridden RNC to a "moment of crisis."
"I think we need someone who can make the trains run on time," Anuzis said, pointedly. Stressing that he would spend the "overwhelming majority of my time" on fundraising, he added that he would focus on "rebuilding the credibility" of the organization.
Steele's decision to seek a second term shocked a Washington establishment that expected him to exit the stage following a gaffe-filled term that included reports that party money had been used to cover a trip to a bondage-themed topless nightclub. (.) Even more problematic for some Republicans was the perception that Steele was focused on promoting himself, not his party - and that his failure to effectively raise and spend money limited GOP victories in November.
But Steele, the first African-American chair in party history, said Republican gains over the past two years showed that he had steered the RNC effectively. Calling himself a "glass half-full kind of guy," Steele defended the RNC's get-out-the-vote efforts during his tenure and vowed to "hunker down" to deal with the RNC's $20 million debt if reelected. He also maintained that the GOP has to be a big-tent party.
"We cannot be a party that sits back with a litmus test and excludes," said Steele, garnering applause from the audience.
Priebus, by contrast, said that "if you're pro-abortion, pro-stimulus, pro-bailout, you might not be a Republican." The babyfaced Wisconsin GOP chair, perhaps the frontrunner in the race, added that "the chairman has to be an outspoken, unabashed conservative Republican."
According to a count by Politico, it is impossible for Steele to win reelection without a serious game-changer: 88 members of the 168-member committee say they won't vote for him in the January 14th election.
Steele's closing statement - in which he thanked RNC members for trusting him over the past two years - prompted Tweets that he was offering what amounted to his farewell speech. Still, he made the case for keeping him at the top of the organization to expand the reach of the party from the bottom.
"...you don't need a top-down RNC, because I'm not a top-down person, as you know," he said. "You need more of the same from the bottom up."
Steele seemed to chafe at the fact that two of the debate questions focused on social issues, abortion and same-sex marriage, noting correctly that the RNC chairman does not set policy. He did answer the questions, however, joining with the other candidates to affirm opposition to same-sex marriage and abortion rights.
All five candidates repeatedly returned to the issue of fundraising, a crucial issue for an RNC that has seen its influence questioned as GOP outside groups have raised money from traditional RNC donors. Priebus said "the RNC needs to restore the trust and the confidence of our major donors, our grassroots activists," arguing that the group's first priority needs to be getting Republicans elected - and that takes money. Cino, a veteran of the Bush administration, argued that the GOP needed to be rebuilt from the bottom up - which she suggested meant building up state parties.
Asked if Sarah Palin could win the presidency in 2012, all five candidates said yes. They were also asked by moderators Grover Norquist and Tucker Carlson to identify their hero - "aside from President Reagan." Steele said Frederick Douglass, Priebus pointed to Lincoln, Wagner picked John Ashcroft, Cino chose Margaret Thatcher, and Anuzis selected Austrian economist Ludwig von Mises.
Those hoping for a Steele gaffe were largely disappointed, though the chairman did seem to slip up when he said his favorite book was "War and Peace" but then added, "it was the best of times, it was the worst of times" - a quote from "A Tale of Two Cities." He also denied having suggested in the past that he was being criticized for his race - despite having seemed to say as much onseparate earlier this year.
At one point the candidates were asked how many guns they own. Steele was among two candidates who said zero, while Wagner boasted of 16. Asked to name an issue on which they agree with President Obama, Steele and Priebus said his handling of the war effort, Wagner said his outreach to young people, Cino said his anti-obesity push, while Anuzis said, "He went on vacation. The country is a lot safer."
The election for a new chairman - which uses a byzantine system involving multiple rounds of voting - will take place on Friday, January 14th in Maryland.