The RNC After Steele: Many Bridges to Build

Michael Steele (Alex Wong/Getty Images)
Michael Steele (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

On Friday, after two years in office, Michael Steele was beaten handily in his bid for a second term atop the Republican National Committee. Steele, the former lieutenant governor of Maryland, became the first African American to chair the RNC, occasionally with disastrous consequences: His verbal and behavioral gaffes were infamous and numerous — who can forget his hip-hop poses with GOP interns? — and it was he who oversaw the staffer who spent nearly $2,000 of RNC money at a West Hollywood burlesque bar. Things got so bad that, toward the end of Steele's tenure, major donors abandoned the RNC en masse, leaving the organization tens of millions of dollars in debt and seriously calling into question Steele's ability to do his most important job: raise money.


All that in mind, nobody was very surprised when Steele was usurped by Reince Priebus, chairman of the Wisconsin Republican Party, ex-general counsel for the RNC and a former Steele confidant. Insiders say that Priebus is better at fundraising than Steele, and less flamboyant than his predecessor in speech and manner, making him less of a liability in interviews. What's more, Priebus had tremendous success in November's midterm elections in Wisconsin, helping defeat three-term Democratic Sen. Russ Feingold and ensuring that Republican Scott Walker beat out Democrat Tom Barrett in the state's gubernatorial election. The wins were notable in and of themselves, of course, but especially so in a state that Obama carried by 14 points in 2008.

To be sure, the Republicans have turned a corner with Priebus, who they're hoping will lead them toward an Obama defeat in 2012 the way he led Wisconsin toward a wave of GOP victories in the midterms. What remains to be seen, however, is what's in store for blacks and the GOP.

Though he would often say so in code, one of Steele's main goals as GOP chair was to increase the Republican Party's diversity by drawing in blacks and Hispanics. It's what he meant by saying the party needed a "hip-hop" makeover, and that he was a "street" kind of GOP chairman. "We need messengers to really capture that region — young, Hispanic, black, a cross section," Steele said in early 2009. "We want to convey that the modern-day GOP looks like the conservative party that stands on principles. But we want to apply them to urban-surburban hip-hop settings."

Like everyone in America, Steele was well aware that minority voters broke hard for Obama in 2008, with 96 percent of blacks and 67 percent of Latinos voting Democrat. Surely Steele was also aware that, by 2050, "minorities" will be the majority in the United States. If the GOP doesn't play its cards right with people of color now, in other words, the coming decades will find it facing an uphill battle of unprecedented proportions.

It's that last piece of Priebus' recent work that may be the most important difference between him and Steele en route to 2012. Though Steele often tried his hardest to build bridges with the increasingly powerful Tea Party movement, their working relationship was always a rocky one. Chicago Tea Partiers say they outright snubbed Steele when he asked to speak to them in April 2009. And one year later, at a meeting in Washington, still other Tea Party supporters told Fox News, "Steele wants to try to co-opt us, but we're coming to tell him he doesn't get it. We want to return the Republican Party to its roots. We're expecting some fireworks."

For his part, Steele would occasionally attack the far-right conservative firebrands idolized by the Tea Party movement, such as when he called Rush Limbaugh an "entertainer" whose rhetoric was "ugly." (After much haranguing from other GOP members, Steele would later apologize for his Limbaugh critique.)


Perhaps learning from Steele's mistakes, Priebus has made it very clear that he intends to reach out early and often to the growing conservative "grassroots" movement (read: Tea Party movement). "I'm part of the grassroots movement," he said after winning on Friday. "One of the things I've said is our party is part of the conservative movement in this country. We're not in competition with it."

Tell that to the Tea Party, some leaders of which have said they're still unsure whether Priebus is friend or foe. What is certain is that a white man is back in power at the nation's stereotypically white party, and he's trying to build bridges with a political movement that's had an even harder time achieving diversity than the GOP.


Looked at this way, Steele's ouster would seem to be an analogy for a bigger change in the GOP: The minority concern is on the back burner; it's time now to focus on placating the Tea Party.

Cord Jefferson is the culture editor at Good magazine and a regular contributor to The Root. Follow him on Twitter.