Republican National Committee chairman Michael Steele will announce whether he will seek a second term in the spotlight Monday night, ending a month of speculation about the controversial chairman's future at a time when his allies have begun seeking other alternatives.
Steele's actual decision remains a closely guarded secret. Even his top advisors, both inside and outside the committee, say they don't know which direction he will take. But a series of high-level defections has undermined the coalition that got Steele elected in 2009, suggesting his path to another term, if he decides to run in the Jan. 14 election, will be difficult.
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During his tenure, Steele cultivated an inner circle of about 30 advisors, out of the RNC's 168 voting members, who served as unofficial liaisons to the rest of the committee. But that circle has shrunk in recent weeks as formerly close allies began informing Steele they would no longer back his candidacy.
The most visible defection came earlier this month, when Wisconsin Republican Party chairman Reince Priebus said he would run for the party's top spot himself. Priebus served as Steele's closest ally during the 2009 bid, and Steele rewarded Priebus's support by naming him general counsel. Priebus quit that post earlier this month.
Priebus's candidacy created a hole in Steele's kitchen cabinet. So far, at least five one-time Steele supporters have said publicly they will back the Wisconsin chairman.
Other candidates, too, have taken some of Steele's support. Former Michigan state party chairman Saul Anuzis has support from Delaware Party chair Tom Ross, who served as a whip on Steele's vote-counting team in 2009. And Tennessee RNC member John Ryder, whom Steele appointed to serve on several key committees, will back former RNC co-chairman Ann Wagner. Even Steele's staff has defected; former RNC political director Gentry Collins is running for chairman himself.
But Steele allies always believed they started their campaign with at least 18 of the 85 votes needed to secure a win, thanks to the chairman's commitment to involving traditionally overlooked outlying territories. The RNC grants the same number of votes to those territories -- Guam, American Samoa, the Northern Mariana Islands, the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico -- as it does to a state. Traditionally, those territories, joined by Hawaii, vote in an 18-vote bloc that provides them power where they might otherwise have none.
Steele traveled to the territories for fundraisers, sent money to help local state parties and even hired a consultant from the islands, far more than any previous chairman has done. But he can't count on their unanimous votes; the Puerto Rican delegation, led by Gov. Luis Fortuno, will not cast ballots for Steele, they have told allies on the committee.
Meanwhile, even support from Steele's home state is in doubt. Over the weekend, Steele ally Mary Kane lost her bid to become Maryland state party chair, falling to Tea Party-backed contender Alex Mooney. Mooney has told Marylanders he will not vote for Steele, sources in Washington and Maryland say.
Steele's tenure has been marked by bumps in the road and frayed relations, both with committee members and with members of Republican leadership in Congress. But his team has bragged about the RNC's role in electing Republicans across the country, and the party's excellent performance in the 2010 elections had some believing Steele deserved the same credit as Republican chairmem who head the party's House, Senate and gubernatorial campaign committees.
Yet a month and a half after elections that will send Republicans back to the House majority, all signs point to Steele's departure. He has not put together the kind of campaign team it would take to run a robust re-election effort, though that could presumably be done in a matter of days. And he's spent much of the last month out of the spotlight, traveling to Italy for a ceremony that elevated the Catholic Archbishop of Washington to the College of Cardinals.
But committee members who want to see Steele depart see him as unpredictable, a dangerous trait in an opponent. Several were making phone calls as of late Sunday, bent on doing all they can to move Steele toward the exit.