Maryland Republicans perplexed Michael Steele would seek governor's nod after years of criticizing party
Republican establishment figures in deep-blue Maryland are bewildered Michael Steele would seek the party’s nomination for governor after voting for President Joe Biden and spending the last six years bashing the party and its elected leaders.
Between Steele’s oft-repeated suggestions his party is gripped by racism, misogyny, and white nationalism and his preferred venue for leveling those charges — MSNBC, the media outlet at which the former lieutenant governor was a paid contributor from 2003-2007 — some Maryland Republicans are having a hard time understanding why he would ask GOP voters for support. These questions are emphasized by the fact the bid for the state’s highest office is up for grabs in a closed primary in which he could run as an independent or even a Democrat.
Like Steele, Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan has criticized former President Donald Trump and has admitted never voting for him in 2016 or 2020 — yet it has not diminished his popularity with Republicans in his state. But unlike Steele, Hogan did not vote for Biden and has not painted his party with a broad, negative brush that went beyond Trump to include Republicans in Congress and GOP voters.
“If his plan over the past couple of years was to run for governor as a Republican, he’s gone about it in an odd way,” said Maryland Republican Party Chairman Dirk Haire, who is neutral in primary contests. “And, I don’t just mean his comments on President Trump. In several settings, he’s made derogatory comments on rank-and-file Republicans.”
Steele, 62, is exploring a run for governor in 2022, likely to make a final decision on whether to mount a campaign by early November.
For now, Steele is traveling the state, fielding public opinion polls, and engaging in other activities to determine if his candidacy is viable. On Tuesday, a spokesman for Steele fired back at GOP critics who say the former Maryland lieutenant governor has forfeited his right to ask Republicans for their vote because he has been largely critical of the party writ since Trump won the party’s presidential nomination in 2016.
“I think they’re dead wrong,” said Jim Dornan, the Republican strategist leading Steele’s exploratory effort. “Michael Steele has not changed his views as to what it means to be a Republican or conservative.”
Steele made a name for himself as Republican National Committee chairman, a position his GOP counterparts elected him to a few years after his stint as lieutenant governor and as former President Barack Obama assumed office. As RNC chairman, Steele was mercilessly critical of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, then in her first stint with the gavel. At RNC headquarters, adjacent to Capitol Hill, every window showcased a “Fire Pelosi” placard.
Steele presided over the national party during the 2010 midterm elections when Republicans recaptured the House in a historic, 63-seat pickup (they fell short of the majority in the Senate but still flipped seven Democratic seats.) But Steele was ousted soon after, in favor of Reince Priebus, amid high-profile controversies that garnered uncomfortable media scrutiny and complaints about his management of party finances.
Six years later, with the rise of Trump, Steele became one of the most recognizable Republican critics of the party’s new leader — and the party in general. In August of last year, Steele joined the Lincoln Project as an adviser. The group was founded by renegade Republicans who opposed Trump but, by the time Steele signed on, had expanded its mission to helping Democrats win back the Senate.
"I get my role as a former national chairman. I get it, but I'm an American. I get my role as a former party leader. I'm still an American," Steele said on MSNBC at the time, according to CNN. “And these things matter to me more than aligning myself with a party that has clearly decided it would rather be sycophantic than principled.”
Steele resigned from the Lincoln Project soon after the November election, later claiming he opposed its efforts to oust incumbent Republican senators.
Some Maryland Republicans trying to discourage Steele from running for governor are being pragmatic. They fear the former lieutenant governor would attract enough votes in the primary to box out Hogan Cabinet Secretary Kelly Schulz and help state legislator Dan Cox advance to the nomination.
Maryland is among the most solidly Democratic states in the country, and Republicans fear they will not have a fighting chance with Cox, regardless of how poorly Biden polls and how well the GOP does in other states.
To a degree, the concern that Steele would have enough legs to win votes in the primary fits with what Steele’s camp claims it hears in conversations and visits in the state. Dornan said Steele still has a following and that Republicans are responding positively to the idea of him running for governor.
“Michael is by far the strongest Republican candidate the party could put up against a very strong field of Democrats,” he said.
Kathy Szeliga, a Republican state legislator and previous Senate candidate, finds that assertion preposterous. Szeliga said she is not worried Steele would pave the way for a weak general election candidate to win the Republican primary — because she does not believe he would have a minimal impact on the race regardless of the candidate field.
“We’re talking about Republican primary voters who are faithful and show up for every election,” she said. “There’s no way they would vote for him.”
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