WASHINGTON – Republicans are aggressively recruiting a challenger to Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele, whose tenure as party chief has been marked by ill-chosen comments and questions about finances.
The RNC must decide in January whether to keep Steele. Republicans, looking to oust President Barack Obama in 2012, are considering a chairman who would operate more behind the scenes and let Rep. John Boehner, likely the next speaker of the House, take the lead as the party's main spokesman.
"I think we need to move to a nuts-and-bolts type of candidate who will get back to the fundamentals, who will make the trains run on time and raise money," said Saul Anuzis, a committee member from Michigan and former state party chairman who is weighing a bid for chairman. "I'd rather have that than a talking head who wants to be the face of the party."
Henry Barbour, a nephew of Republican Governors Association chairman and Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, has reached out to a half-dozen potential candidates who would challenge Steele if he seeks to keep the chairmanship. The younger Barbour, who is one of the 168 voting members of the RNC, is looking for candidates who could rally an anti-Steele voting bloc when members meet Jan. 13-16.
Among the names being considered are David Norcross, a former New Jersey party chairman, and Wisconsin GOP chairman and RNC lawyer Reince Priebus, who ran Steele's 2009 bid for chairman.
Norcross did not return messages on Wednesday. In an e-mail to The Associated Press, Priebus said, "At this point, discussing the internal election issues at the RNC in the press is something that I am not going to do."
Another possible candidate, Connecticut GOP Chairman Chris Healy, is talking about a run but hasn't made a decision. Even so, he is highlighting his work as a fundraiser, a traditional role for the national committee chief.
"I've shown I can grind money out of a stone and actually get a lot for it," Healy said.
After losing a bruising presidential race against Obama in 2008 and facing minority status in the House and Senate, RNC members elected Steele their chairman and chief spokesman. But his bombastic style irritated some party members and heavy spending under his watch drew fiery criticism.
"My leadership style is different. I'm not cut out of the same mold as others," an unapologetic Steele told reporters last Friday at the RNC's headquarters on Capitol Hill.
Instead of hoarding donor dollars, he quickly sent cash to state parties, paying for 350 staffers from Maine to California. He went on a 48-state bus tour, an effort to rally the party base but effectively a chance for Steele to meet with RNC members who will decide his fate.
And Steele sent cash — and himself — to Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands, U.S. territories that, like U.S. states, get three votes each when deciding leaders.
Steele says he has not decided whether to seek a second term. But his choice hinges on whether he can hold together support or whether the committee members decide they want a chairman who is less familiar with the spotlight and more comfortable raising money and building technical details of campaigns.
Voters on Tuesday gave Republicans at least 60 new seats in the House. Republicans picked up 10 governorships; the party also gained control of 19 state legislative chambers and now hold their highest level of state legislative seats since 1928.
Since then, Steele has met with reporters and touted the RNC's efforts to deliver victories. He repeatedly said the RNC deserves some credit for the turnaround.
"I inherited a party that no one wanted to be a part of," he said.
Yet, for some, those victories were in spite of Steele.
"As successful as things were on election night, the RNC could have played a more effective role in making it a more successful night in the U.S. Senate races, the gubernatorial races and the U.S. House races," said Healy.
The RNC trailed Democrats by $15 million in fundraising, is in debt and was largely overshadowed by third-party groups that, in a few months, have raised almost as much as Republican National Committee has since January 2009.
The RNC has raised more than $79 million this year and has spent all of it — and then some. The RNC ended September with about $3.4 million in cash on hand and $4.6 million in debt. The RNC also took out a $2.5 million loan in September.
Steele had started the job with a $23 million surplus.
Associated Press writers Susan Haigh in Hartford, Conn., and Scott Bauer in Madison, Wis., contributed to this report.