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Michael Steele bids to be first African American chair of RNC

November 13, 2008 |  8:55 pm

The fallout starts from the political demolition the Republicans experienced in last week's presidential balloting:

Michael Steele, former Maryland lieutenant governor and unsuccessful U.S. Senate candidate, announced this evening his candidacy to become chairman of the Republican National Committee. His announcement is an open challenge to current chairman, Mike Duncan, who has saFormer Maryland lieutenant governor Michael Steele announces candidacy for chairman of the Republican National Committeeid he was exploring a re-election bid when the committee meets in January.

Normally, the party chair is named by the president if he controls the White House. But with George W. Bush leaving Jan. 20, the next selection will be left up to the RNC's members.

In his announcement Steele, a former Maryland state party chair, said he made his decision to challenge the incumbent last weekend, but delayed disclosure while he telephoned many committee members to seek their support.

The 50-year-old Steele, a native of Washington, D.C., and its Catholic school system and a graduate of Johns Hopkins University, has had his eyes on the RNC's top job for several years.

He was about to announce a candidacy to succeed Bush aide Ken Mehlman immediately after losing a Senate run in 2006, when Bush named Florida Sen. Mel Martinez.

Martinez got the job, partly as an outreach to the Latino community, which did not work very well, according to last week's presidential voting. The Cuban-born Martinez held the job only nine months and resigned 13 months ago eager to return to full-time senatoring, given his re-election campaign in 2010.

Duncan, a Kentucky native and longtime party operative, inherited the challenging job, which ...

... came after Republicans lost both houses of Congress in 2006 and with polls accurately predicting 2008 would be a difficult year for the GOP. That was not least because party members had to defend 22 of the 34 Senate seats up for election at a time of economic uncertainty and perilous presidential unpopularity.

Even though the chairman and the RNC always yield to the presidential candidate in those election years, Duncan was virtually invisible this year. And his role, if any, in the damaging Sarah Palin clothes flap has yet to be detailed.

At the beginning of Bush's terms, he named former Virginia Gov. Jim Gilmore to the RNC spot. But his tenure was brief given his combativeness.

Bush then named one of his most trusted friends, former Montana Gov. Marc Racicot, who worked very closely with chief White House strategist Karl Rove on national strategy and fundraising through frequent phone calls and early breakfasts. Racicot left the RNC after two years only to chair the Bush-Cheney 2004 re-election campaign.Current chairman of the Republican National Committee and longtime GOP party operative Mike Duncan

Tonight Steele said, "The Republican Party must present a vision for the future of America that relies on our conservative values and core principles. It is wrong to believe the voters have suddenly become liberal. They have just lost any sense of confidence that the Republican Party holds the answers to their problems.   

"We must face the fact that our party has failed in recent years to live up to our own principles -- we have failed to be ‘solutions oriented’ in addressing the concerns of all Americans.”

Steele also added: "Most Americans today see a Republican Party that defines itself by what it is against rather than what it is for. We can tell you why public schools aren’t working, but not articulate a compelling vision for how we’ll better educate children. We’re well-equipped to rail against tax increases; but can’t begin to explain how we’ll help the poor.

"The success of our Party’s resurgence will come from the states -- from our local leaders and from our Governors.”

The next Republican chairman, especially if he's African American at a time of an African American president, is likely to play a key national role in rebuilding a GOP that is plum out of obvious national leaders. The lack of political ambition of Vice President Dick Cheney and the advanced age of the losing presidential candidate, John McCain, leave no obvious heir apparent.

Steele's right about the next party leader for 2012 likely coming from the 21 remaining Republican governors or a short list of former governors such as Mitt Romney or Mike Huckabee. As if to underline that, a few of them including Louisiana's 37-year-old Bobby Jindal are planning test-the-waters trips to Iowa later this month.

Yes, this month.

--Andrew Malcolm

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Photo credit: Office of Michael Steele; Republican National Committee