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Steele’s Fate Likely Hinges on NY-20

As controversy swirls around Michael Steele’s drama-laden debut as Republican National Committee Chairman, speculation about whether he’ll remain in the post has blossomed among Democrats and Republicans alike. Steele won the chairmanship in January after a six-ballot marathon that saw the previous Chairman, Mike Duncan, drop out after the third ballot and saw Steele best southerner Katon Dawson 91-77 on the final vote.

According to multiple former high-level RNC staffers familiar with the dynamics involved, Steele is unlikely to survive in the post if favored Republican Jim Tedisco loses his open-seat race to Democrat Scott Murphy. The special election, scheduled for March 31, is to fill a vacancy left when Kirsten Gillibrand took Hillary Clinton’s Senate seat.

If Tedisco loses, the ex-staffers said, “Steele is done.”

Completely, definitively?


By contrast, they said, the recent financial allegations against Steele are unlikely to bring about a resignation unless there’s a serious smoking gun that catches Steele in specific awareness or direction of any shady doings. It’s a mens rea standard.

As for NY-20, Republican registration in the district outnumbers Democratic registration, and Jim Tedisco is a longtime New York State legislator who is extremely well known compared to the younger Murphy. Polling has shown Tedisco comfortably ahead.

However, several factors could lead to an upset here and a Democratic win. First, recent polling has shown Murphy edging closer, and Tedisco under 50%. Second, it appears that, although Republicans will again challenge the validity of signatures, third-party libertarian candidate Eric Sundwall may be poised to get on the ballot, which would likely siphon off some Tedisco votes. Third, Democrats are spending seriously on the race, while Steele’s efforts have been largely cosmetic. Steele campaigned on the idea that as chairman, he would lead the party back to winning races in territory they’ve been ceding. Still, his personal efforts behind fundraising on this race have been terrible, and Republicans watching the internal dynamics know it. If Tedisco wins, Steele won’t get any credit behind the scenes. Fourth, Tedisco is struggling with his message on the stimulus package, which is apparently tied to his softening poll numbers.

For those that haven’t followed the story closely, Steele is under attack on many fronts at once, so let’s recap.

The highest profile blunder, fairly unanimously agreed, was his confrontation-and-capitulation to Rush Limbaugh, fueling the Limbaugh Strategy and by most (though by no means unanimous) accounts giving a gift to Barack Obama and Democrats in general.

Steele has had a spate of strange, provocative, on-record statements most reminiscent of the gift-a-thon that marked the Rod Blagojevich scandal. While it should be clear that Steele’s comments are not tethered to a specific ethical controversy like the former Illinois Governor’s were, in terms of their outlandishness and headline-grabbing, it’s a decent parallel. It seems that only a few days go by between Steele talking about wanting to hip-hop-ize the Republican Party, offering Indian-American Bobby Jindal some “slum love,” or comparing his party to a bunch of alcoholics who need a 12-step program. Attention-grabbing? “Off the hook?” Yes. But also displeasing from a Republican perspective.

Additionally, Steele has threatened withholding re-election support for Republican moderates like Specter, Snowe and Collins if they vote with Democrats in support of Obama’s agenda, and also managed to seem waffling on this topic in his public statements at the same time. He may see his job as “to tick people off,” and it’s working with a significant number of Republicans.

Perhaps most significantly in the long run, Steele has had several bad stories emerge regarding his 2006 Maryland Senate campaign financial operations. In early February, this Washington Post investigative report disclosed that the finance director of Steele’s failed 2006 Senate bid has told federal prosecutors that the campaign had funneled cash to a company run by Steele’s sister. Steele strongly denied wrongdoing.

Last week, a WBAL report emerged from reporter Jayne Miller that during their 2006 statewide Maryland campaigns, Steele and Robert Ehrlich funneled $417,000 to a commodities trading firm, Allied Berton, LLC, for “political consulting.” Allied Berton, being a commodities trading firm, does not offer political consulting. But apparently they can organize six busloads of homeless black men from Philadelphia to come down and hand out sample ballots labeling Steele and Ehrlich as Democrats. Speculation is mounting that Republicans who have it in for Steele are leaking these stories and potentially might have more.

Yet another major problem is organizational. Steele has no senior staff positions filled at the RNC. On the day FiveThirtyEight spoke to these former RNC staffers, Cyrus Krohn resigned his RNC post as eCampaign Director. Yet, this was one of the few staff positions with anyone in place. With many D.C. Republicans these days still scrambling for work, that Krohn quit in such an environment without another job waiting was significant, the sources said, because it illustrated the profound, rudderless dysfunction going on right now at RNC headquarters.

Finally, Steele, who won the chairmanship after a campaign for the post that provided no clear frontrunners, still has enemies within the Republican Party. Ada Fisher, an RNC member who herself was at the center of shady financial shenanigans during a 2006 run for office, blasted Steele at the end of last week and called on him to resign, is a Dawson backer. Dawson clearly knows that Steele may be vulnerable, and unlike, say, someone like Duncan who has moved on, Dawson may envision a route to winning the chairmanship after all.

However, realizing that there are a number of moving parts in the equation with Steele’s mouth being one of them, the current calculus seems to be that short of two things – (1) a serious smoking gun in the financial scandal, beyond what we’ve seen to date; or (2) a Tedisco loss in NY-20 at the end of this month – Steele would hang on in the post despite his troubles.

The first reason for that is Steele’s personality seems unlikely to lead him to resignation (comma Baby). If Steele won’t resign, the process would then be that RNC members would have to call for a special meeting to depose him. However, another vote would be required to vote Steele out, and then once that happens someone else would have to be elected.

That’s the second main reason Steele might hang on – as of now there’s no clearly supported alternative candidate. You don’t make a move until you know you’ve got the outcome secured, and while proxies for Dawson like Ada Fisher are out after Steele, that’s a long way away from Dawson having an endgame. (Dawson, by the way, has claimed publicly he supports Steele: “He has the promise to be a tremendous chairman.”) Keep in mind that if something dramatic were to happen and Steele was ousted, the next race would occur in the spotlight and hindsight of the Limbaugh spectacle. The scrutiny on “who’s really running the Republican Party” and umpteen Limbaugh litmus-test questions would throw a chaotic element into the mix that would make an uncertain situation even less predictable. Someone like Newt Gingrich could probably handle it, but nobody who’s running in 2012 is going to try for the such a post, and Newt is giving indications he’s preparing for a run.

While folks like NRO’s Jim Geraghty openly muse about “buyer’s remorse,” others Republicans seem willing to give Steele more time. Last night, conservative Patrick Ruffini acknowledged that Steele had erred in the Limbaugh firestorm, but reiterated his basic support: “I still want him to be a successful RNC Chairman. Steele was elected Chairman as a fresh face and a reformer, a basic orientation the Republican Party will need to embrace in 2010. He remains one of the most compelling public faces of the party.”

Writing for Politico, Roger Simon categorizes two types of Republicans reacting to Steele: “What the hell is this guy babbling about?” and “I know what the hell this guy is babbling about, and I don’t like it.”

What is still likely is, though they are clearly not happy with some of Steele’s shenanigans and organization-building unpreparedness, there are enough Republicans at this point who would rather see Steele succeed than fail.

But God help him if Murphy beats Tedisco in NY-20.


Quick, off-topic update. Nate didn’t mention this, but FiveThirtyEight turns one year old today. What a year.