Not so long ago, after Michael Steele’s rocky start as Republican National Committee chairman, there were rumors of impending coups and evidence of deep dissatisfaction within the GOP ranks.
But after a shaky debut marked by a series of gaffes and a disappointing loss in a New York special congressional election, Steele is beginning to win over skeptical committee members and placate some of his toughest critics.
RNC members interviewed following this week’s regular meeting of state GOP chairmen said that Steele has finally found his footing in his new role and is consolidating support.
“[Steele] now understands what the job description is,” said Arizona Republican Party Chairman Randy Pullen, who as recently as three weeks ago was accused by a Steele ally of “attempting to usurp the Chairman’s authority.”
“He fully understands what his job is and is doing it.”
Pullen, who also serves RNC Treasurer, pushed through a committee resolution last month requiring that Steele get approval from the RNC executive committee for all expenditures over $100,000. But now, Pullen is praising Steele for “showing leadership and a vision of where to take the party.”
“It’s been a learning experience and he is definitely getting the swing of it now,” Pullen added, pointing to recent staff hires that have been “very solid.”
David Norcross, a national committeeman from New Jersey who supported Pullen’s resolution, said that while Steele “made the road as difficult for himself as he could, I think he has navigated it successfully.”
“He may be finding his sea legs,” Norcross added, before noting that “the questioning isn’t over, but it seems like he could get to where he needs to be.”
Steele was credited by many committee members for conducting a seamless party meeting—and one that sidestepped a potential controversy surrounding a resolution pushed by Norcross and other conservatives referring to Democrats as the “Democrat Socialist Party.”
The chairman, who opposed the measure, convinced the committee to adopt a watered down version of the resolution that instead called on Democrats to “stop pushing our country toward socialism.”
“Those tags are not helpful in my opinion,” Maine Republican Party Chairman Charlie Webster said of the original resolution. Webster pointed out that criticism of Steele from within the committee has “dissipated.”
Steele also won praise for a Tuesday speech to the committee in which he vowed to vigorously oppose President Barack Obama and insisted that “the Republican comeback has begun.”
“We are going to take the president head-on. The honeymoon is over. The two-party system is making a comeback, and that comeback starts today,” Steele said.
The speech, noted Mississippi national committeeman Henry Barbour, “was well received and encouraging.”
“He's hitting his stride,” Barbour said of Steele.
“He did an excellent job with the meeting, everything was organized and on time,” said Louisiana Republican Party Chairman Roger Villere, who co-chaired former Ohio Secretary of State Ken Blackwell’s run against Steele in the RNC chairman’s race. “He gave an excellent speech.”
GOP Gov. Sarah Palin weighed in with a statement from Alaska.
"Today, we have a friend in RNC Chairman Michael Steele, and his bold and courageous speech defines his leadership goals that will guide us all through this most difficult time for our nation."
Steele’s standing has also benefited from the RNC’s solid recent fundraising performance—a critical determinant of a chairman’s success. The RNC raised more money than the Democratic National Committee in both March and April and reports a cash-on-hand advantage of $24.4 million to $9.1 million.
Steele “has now settled into the job, and that's a process that takes time for anyone,” said national committeeman Mark Hillman of Colorado, a former Blackwell supporter. “He's developed a good sense of what the chairman's job is and what it isn't.”
While Steele may be finding his groove, there are still pockets of resistance. Steele acknowledged as much in an interview with Fox News earlier in the week.
Asked about committee members who have worked to strip his authority. Steele responded: “They can contemplate all they want to, but the reality is if they want a figurehead chairman you can have a figurehead chairman, but it won't be Michael Steele.”
“Some of them were supposedly friends,” he said of his critics. “It's kind of eerie to see them standing on their knives bared.”
Villere, the Louisiana chairman, conceded there are still some hard feelings and relationships that need to be tended.
The sniping at Steele “is still going on,” he said, but there is a sense within the committee that “the man won the race and we have to give him a chance to govern.”
Indiana Republican Party Chairman Murray Clark, who hailed Steele’s victory in January as a “great day for our Republican Party,” said that despite some residual hostility Steele is making considerable progress.
“I’m not naïve enough to think there isn’t still some of that lingering,” Clark said. “[Steele] readily admits to members of the RNC that he has made mistakes.”
“But now he is establishing an operation that people are comfortable with,” he said.