TAMPA — Republicans gathered at the University Club in downtown Tampa Saturday night to honor GOP chairman Reince Priebus. The event was sponsored by the Wisconsin delegation, which of course represents Priebus’ home state, and the Mississippi delegation, home of former governor and former RNC chairman Haley Barbour. There were several major players there: Priebus himself, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, Sen. Ron Johnson, Barbour and nephew Henry Barbour, former Virginia governor and former RNC chair Jim Gilmore, former chair Mike Duncan, and others.
With the presence of Priebus, Barbour, Gilmore, and Duncan, the event featured the current and three former chairmen of the party. But there was one very recent chairman who was nowhere to be found, and whose name didn’t come up: Michael Steele.
Steele was chairman when the party selected Tampa as the site of its 2012 convention. Steele was chairman when the GOP came roaring back after defeats in 2006 and 2008 to pick up 63 seats to gain control of the House in 2010, and also to gain six seats to greatly strengthen its position in the Senate. In addition, during Steele’s time in office, Republicans won key governorships in New Jersey and Virginia.
But at the University Club, Steele was not only not there; he wasn’t noted or referenced. In public remarks, no one said anything bad about him, and no one said anything good about him. He just didn’t exist.
“I have not been invited to the convention at all,” Steele says. “Their view is, the less we talk about him, we don’t invite him, we ignore him — it just didn’t happen. But those 63 seats in the House did happen. They may want to ignore me, but they don’t want to ignore what I did. It’s just sad.”
“I would have loved to have been there to salute the work of the party and see former chairmen,” Steele adds. “But I guess I’m not a member of that club.”
As it happens, Steele is in Tampa, but only, he says, in his role as an analyst on MSNBC. He won’t be attending any events in his role as former chairman.
In addition to the party’s electoral victories, the sometimes gaffe-prone Steele also left the RNC with a huge debt, and a number of Republican insiders accuse him of leaving the party in a terrible mess. “That’s a bunch of bulls–t,” says Steele. Other chairmen have also left debt, he says, and other members of the RNC concurred in the expenses that led to the Steele-era debt. “It’s just annoying as hell,” Steele says of the talk. “You get a little sick of the bulls–t after a while.” Priebus was a close Steele deputy at the time, but to say the two men have had a falling out is an understatement.
Asked about Steele’s absence, an RNC source noted that most past party chairmen are also part of their state’s delegations to the Tampa convention, and are thus automatically part of events here. “Nobody is ‘invited,’” the source said. “You either are part of a delegation or not. The people from, say, Wisconsin are delegates and alternate delegates.” At the University Club event, however, there were several people who were not officially part of a delegation but rather guests of those who were. “Each of those people [delegates and alternates] gets a guest pass, but it would be up to them,” says the source.
Whatever bad blood exists privately, it is remarkable that the GOP’s most recent chairman has no role at all in the convention whose planning he initiated. He’s also the man who was in charge when the party won smashing victories in the most recent mid-term elections. And he didn’t gain power in a coup; he was elected chairman by a majority of members of the RNC. Finally, Steele is the party’s only black chairman at a time when Republicans are particularly worried about their continuing difficulties in attracting minority voters. Why not have him play some public role in the convention? And if there are still hard feelings — well, it would hardly be the first time that people who didn’t like each other joined hands and smiled in front of the crowds.
“Can we just say I’m part of the party,” asks Steele, “a leader of the party, and still an asset to the party?”