Steele Creates Exploratory Committee for Possible Gubernatorial Bid

Former Republican National Committee chairman Michael S. Steele in a Lincoln Project ad last fall. Screen shot.

Michael S. Steele, the former lieutenant governor and one-time chairman of the Republican National Committee, has created an exploratory committee ahead of a possible run for governor in 2022.

Jim Dornan, a veteran national Republican strategist who was campaign manager for Ellen R. Sauerbrey during her 1998 run for governor in Maryland, is leading Steele’s exploratory effort. He said Steele expects to decide whether to run sometime between Labor Day and Thanksgiving.

Steele’s entry into the gubernatorial race would shake up the GOP field, with Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R) term-limited in 2022. Kelly M. Schulz, a former state lawmaker who is Hogan’s Commerce secretary, is the establishment favorite so far, and Del. Daniel L. Cox (R-Frederick) recently entered the race as an avatar of the Trump wing of the party. Anti-tax gadfly and frequent candidate Robin Ficker is also running.

Steele may have an uneasy relationship with certain Republicans, due to his longstanding and vocal criticism of President Trump and his regular presence as a commentator on MSNBC, but he is also a charismatic, well-known figure in GOP circles with a long record as a Republican activist in Maryland, dating back to his time in the 1980’s as the leader of the Young Republicans at Johns Hopkins University. He was also chairman of the Maryland Republican Party and the Prince George’s County GOP.

Dornan said Steele plans to travel the state in the weeks ahead, “doing a lot of listening, a lot of talking.” He’ll be hitting high-profile events, meeting with voters and party stalwarts, and also plans to begin raising money “very quickly,” he said.

Dornan said Steele has been hearing from both big-time Republican donors and grass-roots activists who are urging him to get in the race.

“Michael has been getting a ton of phone calls from people encouraging him to run, and he’s taking it very seriously,” he said. “He has a vision for the future of Maryland. And he’d be carrying the Hogan vision into the next generation.”

Dornan asserted that even with Steele’s endorsement of President Biden in the 2020 presidential election, the former lieutenant governor will have broad appeal in a Republican primary.

“Michael still has a lot of goodwill in the state,” he said. “Just because he’s not a fan of President Trump doesn’t mean that he’s not a conservative. He’s the same small government conservative he was as Gov. [Robert] Ehrlich’s lieutenant.”

Dornan said Steele did not expect to get much support from Trump supporters, but posited that they aren’t “the majority of Maryland Republican voters.” As for Schulz’s status as the favored candidate of many current party leaders, Dornan said, “We have nothing against Kelly. She’s obviously done an admirable job serving the governor. But we think Michael has a stronger case to make for voters.”

Steele, 62, first ran statewide in 1998, when he unsuccessfully sought the Republican nomination for state comptroller. He took over as state GOP chairman following the 2000 election, and was Ehrlich’s running mate in 2002, becoming the first African-American to win statewide office in Maryland that year (while the two subsequent lieutenant governors have been Black, a Black candidate has never been independently elected to statewide office in the state).

In 2006, Steele was the Republican nominee for U.S. Senate. While he ran a high-profile and well-funded race, 2006 was a big Democratic year nationally, and Steele lost handily to now-Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin (D).

Because Maryland has no mechanism for potential candidates to set up an exploratory committee, Steele has created a so-called 527 committee — a reference to an IRS designation that allows candidates to set up an entity for political activity without formally entering a race — called the Michael Steele for Governor Exploratory Committee. That was how Democratic gubernatorial candidate Tom Perez seeded his political activities before formally becoming a candidate last month.

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Josh Kurtz
Founding Editor Josh Kurtz is a veteran chronicler of Maryland politics and government. He began covering the State House in 1995 for The Gazette newspapers, and has been writing about state and local politics ever since. He was an editor at Roll Call, the Capitol Hill newspaper, for eight years, and for eight years was the editor of E&E Daily, which covers energy and environmental policy on Capitol Hill. For 6 1/2 years Kurtz wrote a weekly column on state politics for Center Maryland and has written for several other Maryland publications as well. Kurtz regularly gives speeches and appears on TV and radio shows to discuss Maryland politics.