In a short lecture and Q&A session on Thursday at UC Santa Barbara’s Campbell Hall, former Republican National Committee (RNC) chair Michael Steele criticized his party’s leadership and called for wide-ranging electoral reforms. Steele, who can appear affable even as he excoriates or exhorts, specifically called out House Republicans as a definitive example of why change was needed. “Just look at everybody who voted to keep Donald Trump in power after they knew what he did [in the January 6 insurrection],” he exclaimed. “Just look at [House Minority Leader] Kevin McCarthy saying he knew it was Trump’s fault. There is no reason in this earth that this man should be reelected and become the next Speaker of the House … but he most definitely will.”
Steele, the first Black man to lead the RNC, was elected to that position in 2009. He was a prominent and sometimes controversial voice of Republican opposition against then-President Obama, whose administration he once compared to Richard Nixon’s. “[Michelle Obama] didn’t like it when I railed against Obamacare,” said Steele, recounting a brief meeting with the First Family. “[Her expression] was dead-cold. I was in a doghouse.”
Despite massive Republican gains in the 2010 midterm elections, Steele’s tenure was dogged by poor relations with party elders, recurring gaffes, and accusations of frivolous spending. His opponents organized against him; in January 2011, the RNC voted to replace Steele with then-Wisconsin GOP chair Reince Priebus. Steele then moved to MSNBC, where he was critical of the Trump administration, and in 2020 endorsed Joe Biden for president.
In the last couple of years, Steele has come out in favor of electoral reforms. “Our political system at this stage needs to broaden,” he told audience members. “We should nationalize Election Day and move it out of November to May. I’ve supported the [Interstate Vote Compact], in which a number of states have agreed to award their electoral votes to whichever presidential candidate wins the national popular vote.” The states (and the District of Columbia) that have signed the compact collectively yield 195 electoral votes, 75 short of holding an overall majority. All of these states were led by Democratic governors at the time they adopted the compact, with the exception of Hawai’i — the Democratic state legislature overrode the veto of the Republican governor at the time, Linda Lingle. “We leave a lot of votes on the floor because of how our current system is set up,” he said. “No Republican [presidential candidate] campaigns in California. Do you know how many Republicans there are in California?” (The answer, in October 2020, was 5,334,323.)
Steele also took aim at the high incumbency rate of federal elected officials. “A member of your community puts his name on the ballot and goes around saying all the right things,” he narrated. “Then he gets elected. As my mama would say, he begins to show his ass — meaning he’s not doing what you elected him to do. And you’ll probably reelect him in the next election cycle anyway because everyone hates Congress but loves their own congressman.” The former RNC chair then proposed a straightforward fix. “Un-elect them all. Start over. Not just term limits — turn them out completely.”