It's been more than three decades since a woman last chaired the Republican National Committee. But now, as Michael Steele's controversial tenure as chairman of the RNC appears to be ending, a woman has thrown her hat in the ring.
This week, a little-known politician from Missouri declared her candidacy for the GOP top job, and while it's too early to tell who among the increasingly crowded field of contenders stands the greatest chance of winning, Ann Wagner could become the first woman elected head of the RNC. (The only other woman to hold the job, Mary Louise Smith, was appointed by President Gerald Ford in 1974.)
In a lengthy interview with The Daily Beast this week, Wagner said she didn't want to "cast aspersions" on Steele's chairmanship, but still managed to make subtle and not-so-subtle digs at his bumpy tenure.
"There needs to be accountability," she said. "The chairman needs to be full-time," she added, noting the needs for "checks and balances and controls." Beyond that, what the RNC needs, is "strong management and leadership from the very top."
From the beginning, Steele has been a public-relations headache for the Republican Party, picking a fight with Rush Limbaugh, offering "slum love" to Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal and describing civil unions as "crazy"—all in the first 30 days after taking office.
But whereas Steele is the "off-the-hook" kind guy, who said he wanted to polish the GOP's image with everyone " including one-armed midgets," Wagner is less showy—even her most high-level official appointment spoke restraint. (She served for three-and-a-half years as ambassador to Luxemborg, appointed by George W. Bush.)
As chairwoman of the Missouri Republican Party, she is credited with turning the state legislature from blue to red, winning statewide races and crucial votes to George W. Bush in 2000 and 2004. Coming off those victories, she became the RNC co-chairwoman before Bush appointed her to the Luxembourg diplomatic post. Coming back, though, she worried that "perhaps socialism had followed me across the pond," she said, and so she decided that she "needed to reengage," successfully chairing Roy Blunt's Senate campaign.
The night before Wagner announced her desire to run for the chairmanship, she called Steele, someone she described as "a friend," telling him her intentions. The conversation was "cordial," she said, adding that she intends to focus on bringing back GOP donors who left the fold during the last cycle.
“With independent expenditures, there’s no coordination so you don’t know if the organization or the group will be there for you.” With outside groups, “you are flying blind a little bit.”
"It's not just restoring a certain level of credibility in being good stewards of our donors' investments," she said, "but frankly just going out and making the ask."
In many ways, Steele's biggest problems have been related to money. There was, of course, notoriously, the almost $2,000 that RNC staffers blew at a "bondage-themed nightclub featuring topless women dancers imitating lesbian sex." (The RNC denied that Steele himself visited the Hollywood club.) More seriously, Democrats have been more effective in raising money, and last month, former RNC political director Gentry Collins wrote a scathing letter, saying Steele had maxed out on the $15 million credit line approved by the committe. And some have criticized Steele for being upstaged financially by GOP operatives such as Karl Rove, who pulled in much-needed cash for the Republican Party during last month's midterm elections. (An RNC spokesperson declined an interview with Steele.)
Wagner, for her part, clearly doesn't want to be beholden to Rove.
"The key is to make sure that, in a presidential year, we are not so dependent upon so many outside groups to assist in this," she said. "With independent expenditures, there's no coordination so you don't know if the organization or the group will be there for you." She added, with outside groups, "you are flying blind a little bit."
And while Wagner herself may be reluctant to criticize Steele, a man she may be up against for the top job, her friends are less circumspect. Leading the RNC is "a ground game as oppose to an air game," said her close friend Catherine Hannaway, who herself was the first female speaker of the Missouri House of Representatives and is now a partner at the Ashcroft Hannaway law firm. "If you look at the amount of money raised, and how it was spent, the current chairman has demonstrated not being able to support that kind of ground game."
Hannaway said that Wagner can bring back the donors who abandoned the GOP during the midterms because she has the "personal charisma that attracts important, powerful, influential people to her, and she has the ability to get them to do the things that she needs to get done."
Even Wagner's foes, such as the former executive director of the Missouri Democratic Party, Michael Kelley, believe in her ability to get things done. "I like Ann—how can you not like her?" he asks, describing her as "a smart organizer" and a "good citizen of Missouri who has completely flawed political beliefs."
If the RNC goes with Wagner, he warns, they party will be embracing Bush-era politics instead of the lessons of fiscal restraint from the last few years.
Among those mulling a bid for the chairmanship are Collins; former Michigan GOP Chairman Saul Anuzis, and former RNC Chairman Robert "Mike" Duncan as well as former Bush administration official Maria Cino; Wisconsin GOP Chairman Reince Priebus, and Connecticut GOP Chairman Chris Healy.
On Wednesday, at a forum sponsored by FreedomWorks, a Tea Party group, and the Republican National Conservative Caucus, Wagner once more stressed the importance of fundraising. "It's money first, it's money second and it's money third," she said at the public forum.
Shushannah Walshe covers politics for The Daily Beast. She is the co-author of Sarah From Alaska: The Sudden Rise and Brutal Education of a New Conservative Superstar. She was a reporter and producer at the Fox News Channel from August 2001 until the end of the 2008 presidential campaign.