With the 2012 election in the history books, Michael Steele may be having the last laugh.
The former Republican National Committee chairman, who lost his job to the current chair, Reince Priebus, despite a 2010 midterm election he oversaw in which Republicans picked up 63 seats in the House to take over the majority from Democrats, feels that he has been vindicated by the results this year. Not only did Mitt Romney lose the presidential race, with Barack Obama becoming only the fourth president in 100 years to win the White House twice with more than 50 percent of the vote (the other three: FDR, Dwight Eisenhower and Ronald Reagan), Democrats picked up seats in the Senate and House.
Back in 2010, which may seem like a decade ago to many Republicans after last Tuesday’s drubbing, 52 Democrats were defeated in the House versus just two Republicans, and Republicans picked up 14 open seats. Republicans won the popular vote 51 percent to 44 percent. And while they failed to retake the Senate, in large part due to problematic candidates like Sharron Angle in Nevada and Christine O’Donnell in Delaware, Republicans did pick up five Senate seats, along with a number of key governorships – including in Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Ohio, Florida, Iowa, Maine and New Mexico.
And while there’s plenty of blame to go around for the 2012 election (just ask Karl Rove), Steele is unsparing in his criticism of his successor at the RNC.
“His term has been an absolute failure,” Steele says of Priebus. “Mine was an absolute success in historic terms.”
And yet, he expects Priebus to be treated differently than he was after 2010. “The difference is that the [Republican] establishment, they’re not bucking to get rid of him because that’s their boy. They’re perfectly comfortable with the way things are.”
Steele, who became the GOP’s first African-American chairman in the wake of the election of the nation’s first black president in 2008, faults his party for not taking their demographic deficit more seriously. In the recent election, Republicans lost 72 percent of Hispanics, 94 percent of African-Americans and even eight in ten Asian-Americans.
“They genuinely believe this is something that’s not going to be a problem for them,” Steele says. “They say, look, we lost in ‘06, we lost in ‘08 and we got it back in 2010.” He cites talk radio host Laura Ingraham, who has counseled conservatives not to overreact to the 2012 loss, as emblematic of the GOP’s belief that “we don’t need to change a thing. We just need to nominate more conservatives. I thought that’s what we’ve been doing!”
Steele says Republicans have missed the mark on diversity, and have failed to reign in the more extreme elements of their base.
“When you look at the [Todd] Akin situation,” referring to the failed Senate nominee in Missouri, who lost to Democratic incumbent Claire McCaskill last Tuesday, “they picked him, he said what he said [about rape victims being able to somehow stop themselves from becoming pregnant], they abandoned him, and then they saw the numbers that showed he could actually win this thing,” says Steele, noting that the national party eventually got back behind Akin’s losing effort.
“They believed the polls they wanted to believe, not the polls that actually reflected what was going on,” Steele said of Republican insiders’ view of the election overall. “That’s why Obama was never really concerned [about losing] certain states.”
But Steele thinks the party should be concerned.
“Now that it’s clear we’ve lost the I-4 corridor,” he said, referring to the central vein of Florida, where Democrats won in part by winning the growing Puerto Rican vote overwhelmingly, “how do we plan to win Florida in the future? When you look at the numbers, the demographics…?”
Steele is derisive when speaking of the GOP’s failed, purportedly high tech get-out-the-vote program, dubbed “ORCA,” calling it a waste of money. And he says the 2012 race lacked a coherent theme, like his “fire Pelosi” message in 2010, which included a bus tour aimed at the then-Democratic House speaker. Steele says the national theme “galvanized” Republicans, and allowed candidates up and down the ticket to communicate a single, coherent thought, whatever their specific, local issues were: “you want to change congress: fire Pelosi.”
“Whether you were at the bottom of the political totem pole or at the top, you could pull a piece of that and weave it into your campaign,” Steele says. “It fed into the ideas of size of government, spending, all of that.”
Next: Steele defends his spending