Friday, January 30, 2009

50 State Steele?

A rudderless Republican National Committee wrapped up a raucous winter meeting today, selecting Michael Steele, a man who whiffed on a primary for Maryland state comptroller he was favored to win against a field of unknowns just a decade ago, as their new face in the post-Obama drubbing era.

Both of’s editors secured press credentials - just like a legitimate news media outlet! – and were on hand, crowded into the designated press corner for all six, tension-fraught ballots that committee members needed to elect a new chairman.                                        

Steele boasted repeatedly of his tenure as Maryland GOP chair, and the election of Bob Ehrlich as governor and himself as Lt. Governor, under his watch.  Of course, Steele glossed over his ticket’s ousting four years later by then-Baltimore mayor Martin O’Malley, and falling 10 points short in his 2006 U.S. Senate bid against Ben Cardin. 

Word around the hall had it that Steele enjoyed strong support fellow Blue Stater RNC members.  Indeed, Steele enjoyed the support of DC’s Republican Party Chair Bob Kabel and national committeewoman Betsy Werronen.  

ElectionDissection ran into Patrick Mara, the Republican who fell short for an at-large DC Council seat last fall, after unseating veteran Republican Council Member Carol Schwartz in a bitterly contested, low turnout primary. 

Mara voiced his support for Steele, citing not only his support for his recent council bid, but also - reminding us that he cut his political teeth in his native heavily Democratic Rhode Island - an affinity for Steele as a Blue State Republican.  Mara explained that Steele understands that it takes a different sort of Republican, a more moderate Republican or one from a more diverse background, to compete in unfavorable terrain.  

Steele’s own rhetoric and from those who advocated on his behalf insisted that only he, the RNC’s media savvy first Afro-Am chairman, could appeal to diverse constituencies, rebuild party infrastructure and reinvent the partisan brand.  Critics drew parallels to the Obama campaign’s “change” theme that opponents found sorely lacking in specifics.  

But in his victory speech, Steele thanked RNC members from all regions of the country, including those from the Northeast, where Republican support has almost dried up in recent years.  (He also thanked the 18 members from the territories, key players on a committee of only 168, where the national committeewoman from the Northern Marianas Islands has a vote equal with the Republican chair from Texas, the nation’s largest Red State.)  “Get ready, baby,” he advised them.  A Steele-led RNC intends to compete there, too.  This was meant to contrast sharply with the man who was his last standing challenger, Katon Dawson, the slick, Southern, well-coiffed chairman from the Deep Red, Deep South Palmetto State, who resembled much of the traditional RNC membership.

Those remarks reinforced what occurred to me during our conversation with Mara: that a Steele chairmanship would implement a strategy similar to Howard Dean’s 50 State Strategy, one that’s built up infrastructure in Deep Red states and enable Democrats to win recent races that they couldn’t contest earlier in this decade.  Given the daunting demographic trends that Republicans face these days, it’s hard to conceive how even more durable infrastructure can save the GOP.  But then again, few foresaw Democrats snaring the seat of a retiring Republican House Speaker, after Dean put his strategy into effect.