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Posted at 12:07 PM ET, 12/22/2010

Handicapping the Republican National Committee chair race

By Chris Cillizza



Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele will have a tough time winning a second term. AP Photo

Uncertainty reigns in the race for the chairmanship of the Republican National Committee despite the fact that the election to pick a new head for the party is now less than a month away.

Conversations with a number of strategists close to the RNC -- and its 168 voting members -- suggest that none of the six candidates in the running are anywhere close to securing the 85 votes they need to claim the chairmanship in January.

But, two tiers of candidates have begun to emerge with the top three seen as potential winners and the bottom three regarded as longer shots although, given the number of undecided voters and the unpredictability of the ballot process, it's hard to count anyone totally out at the moment.

Our handicapping of the field is below -- ranked in order of likelihood of winning. Because there are so many undecided committee members right now, our rankings are likely to change -- and perhaps change drastically -- between now and the vote in mid January. We'll keep updating the rankings as events warrant.

The First Tier

1. Reince Priebus: That the Wisconsin state party chairman is the nominal frontrunner to be the next RNC chairman speaks to the insularity of the committee and the relatively low profile nature of all the candidates in the race not named Michael Steele. Priebus has a good story to tell as Badger State Republicans won the governorship, defeated Sen. Russ Feingold (D) and picked up two House seats under his watch. He is also receiving help rallying votes from a number of influential committee members -- including Mississippi committeeman Henry Barbour -- and has the most public commitments so far. (The Hotline is doing a terrific job of tracking each candidates support; bookmark their always-updating chart.) Priebus added the influential conservative Jim Bopp, an Indiana committeeman, to his side earlier today as well.

2. (tie) Saul Anuzis: Anuzis, a former chairman of the Michigan Republican party, is casting himself in much the same way he did when he ran for chairman back in 2009: a blue-state Republican whose knowledge of and confort level with technology can help the party catch Democrats on that front. Earlier this week, Anuzis won the support of Morton Blackwell, a Virginia committeeman and influential voice among some conservatives on the RNC.

2. (tie) Ann Wagner: Wagner's resume is impressive -- former chair of the Missouri Republican party, ambassador to Luxembourg -- but what really recommends her to the committee and its members is her fundraising capacity. In announcing his endorsement of her candidacy, former U.N. ambassador and potential 2012 presidential candidate(!) John Boltonpraised Wagner's "long track record of raising money and winning elections." Wagner also has some history with the RNC, having served as co-chair of the committee for several years in the early days of the Bush Administration.

The Second Tier

4. Michael Steele: We've written before about the difficulties the current chairman has in trying to win a second term. Steele has 12 announced backers and probably double that amount in public and private support. The question is whether, after an obligatory vote for him on the first ballot, those people stick with Steele for as long as he stays in the race or jump ship to another contender. Steele's lone path to victory is a fractured final vote in which two other candidates fracture the anti-incumbent vote and allow him to shoot the gap. But, that's a thin thread on which to hang a second-term bid.

5. Maria Cino: Cino, who ran the 2008 Republican National Convention and has served in a variety of high-level posts within the GOP over the years, is the choice of a handful of well known political operatives and pols. (Witness the fundraiser held in support of her candidacy by former Vice President Dick Cheney and former RNC Chairman Ed Gillespie.) Cino's problem is that political strategists don't decide the identity of the chairman and the committee men and women who do vote don't entirely like or trust many of the establishment figures within the party. After eight years of having their chairman picked for them by the Bush White House, it's hard to see the 168 committee members bowing to the establishment's will again.

6. Gentry Collins: The former RNC political director may be remembered as the man who effectively ended Steele's chances at a second term -- penning a resignation letter that detailed the fundraising (and other) foibles of the committee. But, Collins has struggled to extricate himself from the Steele wreckage he helped cause with that letter. And, like Cino, Collins struggles under the perception that he is just one more professional political operative trying to tell the 168 what to do. Collins' grassroots organizing abilities, which are considerable and important, could make him an attractive candidate but he has yet to find a way to sell members on his potential.

By Chris Cillizza  | December 22, 2010; 12:07 PM ET
Categories:  Republican Party  
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