OXON HILL, Md. – The national Republican Party, coming off huge election victories but facing a $22 million debt and an internal war over identity, ousted Chairman Michael Steele on Friday and chose Wisconsin party chief Reince Priebus to lead in the run-up to the 2012 presidential race.
The embattled Steele dropped his re-election bid halfway through an afternoon of balloting when it became clear he could not win another two-year term after a first marked by verbal missteps and financial woes.
“We have to get on track. And together we can defeat Barack Obama in 2012,” Priebus, the chairman of the Wisconsin GOP, said in a brief victory speech, pleading for unity within the fractured 168-member Republican National Committee.
A former top lieutenant to Steele, Priebus promised to hire top-notch staff, restructure the organization and put it on solid financial footing so the next GOP presidential nominee will be prepared to take on Obama.
Most urgently, the new chairman must retire an RNC debt of about $22 million owed to vendors and banks, as well as lure back demoralized donors who have been so frustrated with Steele’s management that they sent their dollars elsewhere or didn’t open their wallets at all last year. The party had only about $1 million cash on hand at year’s end.
A telegenic though gaffe-prone party leader, Steele had argued that he should be re-elected because of the GOP’s record of coast-to-coast victories. However, Republican operatives had formed a network of outside groups that adopted traditional national party functions out of a concern about the RNC’s ability under Steele to raise money and deploy resources to key races.
The first black chairman of the Republican Party, Steele was elected to a two-year term in January 2009 just as Obama – the country’s first black president – was taking office.
Since then, Steele, the former lieutenant governor of Maryland, has spent much of his tenure fending off criticism.
He faced frequent complaints about questionable spending, anemic fundraising, staff shake-ups and cringe-inducing comments.