Former Republican National Committee Chairman Michael S. Steele’s decision to join a high-profile anti-Trump organization this week was yet another reminder that many of the president’s harshest critics are members of his own political party — people who in some cases have spent their entire careers working to elect GOP candidates.
The day Steele formally became a senior adviser for the Lincoln Project, co-founder Rick Wilson, a veteran Republican consultant, called him “a singularly insightful and effective political leader.”
“Many principled Republicans have rejected Trump and Trumpism, but few with such a remarkable track record of electoral success,” Wilson added, pointing to GOP gains in Congress during Steele’s tenure as head of the party in 2010 — and his own history-making victory, when he was elected lieutenant governor in 2002, becoming the first African-American ever elected to statewide office in Maryland.
The group’s ads, which take direct aim at Trump’s policy failures and his divisiveness, are funded through donations. They have been praised for their creativity and have reportedly gotten under the president’s skin.
While Steele’s decision to join the Lincoln Project may be a coup for the organization — and provide Democrat Joe Biden’s presidential bid a boost — it could come back to haunt the former lieutenant governor should he decide to seek future statewide office, GOP insiders say.
“It definitely conflicts with where the party is as a whole,” said Del. Matthew Morgan (R-St. Mary’s), a Trump supporter.
Said Fred Price Jr., a member of the Prince George’s County Republican Central Committee: “If he was going to run for governor, he’d have to run as a Democrat or Green Party. I think he’s closed the door to the Republican Party.”
“Mike made that move a long time ago,” Price added. “It’s a different party.”
After four years as lieutenant governor and stints as Maryland and Prince George’s GOP chairman, Steele was the Republican nominee for U.S. Senate in 2006, losing to now-Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin (D).
Morgan, an assistant minority leader in the House of Delegates, disputed Steele’s claim that he hasn’t formally endorsed Biden.
“You are endorsing Biden. He is,” the lawmaker said. “You can’t have it both ways. You have a defined choice and you need to pick a side.”
On his podcast and in an interview with Maryland Matters, Steele discussed how he arrived at his decision to formally oppose the president’s re-election.
As he questioned whether the president has the “leadership, decency” and adherence to “Constitutional norms” to lead the nation, he said he was reminded of Dr. Martin Luther King’s warning that “our lives begin to end the day we become silent on the things that matter.”
Trump “has turned the party from an honorable political movement rooted in principle and core philosophies into a cult of his personality,” Steele said.
“Instead of fighting for [the] future, Republicans gave credence to a man who traffics in conspiracies, fear, racism, xenophobia, misogyny. … For me, it matters that our republic is teetering on the brink of nationalism and authoritarianism. It matters that our president openly suggests that he won’t accept the results of a free and fair election.”
The former RNC chair also accused the president of trying to “hijack our election, weaken our franchise, and deal a fatal blow to the experiment that has been the American experience.”
Steele has yet to decide whether he will run for governor in 2022, when the office comes open due to term limits, or whether he will continue to serve as a consultant and MSNBC commentator.
A Washington, D.C., native who was attracted to Ronald Reagan as a teenager, Steele, 61, is aware that his attacks on Trump, who retains the support of the vast majority of the GOP base, could come back to bite him.
“I’m willing to take that risk, whether it’s now or with a future opportunity,” he told Maryland Matters. “People who know me, I’ve been consistent. I’ve not wavered from the values and the beliefs that I have.”
“As far as future electoral prospects, I’ll trust people on that. If they reject me because I rejected Trump, it says more about them than it does me, because I’m the same guy. And I get it. I’m fine.”
Trump is “a very flawed man with no set of principles or guiding ideology. Why would I turn over 40 years of what I believe and what I’ve fought for and taken a lot of slings and arrows on behalf of, to capitulate to that?”
Steele is still in touch with party insiders, many of whom, he said, express confidence that the GOP can simply shake off the Trump experience when it’s over.
“It’s not going to be that simple,” he counsels. “And it’s not going to be easy at all.”