Guam stretches 30 miles from end to end and is home to just over 180,000 people. But when it comes to GOP intraparty politics, the tiny Pacific island carries as much weight as California. Indeed, places like Guam could make or break Michael Steele's bid for a second term as Republican National Committee chairman.
The RNC's 168 members—three from each of the 50 states, the District of Columbia, and the five island territories, including Guam—are scheduled to elect a chairman on January 14. The job is critical, as the chief will lead the committee through the 2012 election cycle. Steele faces a number of tough challengers.
He won in 2009 only after a bloc of members from the islands, which include Guam, the U.S. Virgin Islands, the Northern Mariana Islands, American Samoa, and Puerto Rico, backed him on the final ballot. Since then, Steele has reached out to the territories more than his predecessors. For example the RNC gave $15,000 to help Guam Republicans and $20,000 to the party in the Marianas, according to Federal Election Commission reports. He also traveled to both territories this year, visits that he described as being part of his "D2H" strategy to increase GOP seats in all states and territories from Delaware to Hawaii. The territories don't have voting power in Congress and are historically ignored by the national parties, so political experts speculated that he was aiming to warm up the island delegations to support him again.
Overall, with more than half of the committee members undeclared, Reince Priebus, chairman of the Wisconsin state party and a former RNC general counsel under Steele, is the early frontrunner, according to the most recent count by the National Journal's Hotline On Call. Steele is second, followed by former Michigan state party leader Saul Anuzis and former RNC Co-Chair Ann Wagner, who are tied in their number of public supporters. The other candidates in the race are Maria Cino, a former RNC deputy chair and the president and CEO of the 2008 Republican National Convention, and Gentry Collins, the RNC's political director during the 2010 cycle.
Steele has taken heat for a string of high-profile gaffes—for example saying early this year on Fox News that the GOP wouldn't take the House—and for the committee's financial woes. Even though the party had huge gains, the RNC ended the midterm cycle with at least $15 million in debt, according to the FEC. Insiders now say the debt could reach $20 million.
Steele's opponents have all emphasized strategies to improve the group's finances, such as lowering fundraising costs and refocusing on major donor contributions, an area where Steele's team has fallen short. But according to Americans for Tax Reform's Grover Norquist—whose group will host a debate among the six candidates on January 3 in Washington—federal party committees can no longer rely on big donors. Because outside groups like Crossroads GPS have no contribution limits, they will siphon such contributions, Norquist says. "The job of the RNC is to maintain and raise money through direct mail, and to get the voter involved through get-out-the-vote efforts that are best done by the party rather than through the candidate or third party groups," he says.
Even with the islands, the next RNC chairman can't expect a day at the beach.