UPDATE 5:24 PM: Wisconsin Republican Party chairman Reince Priebus won the nomination for the RNC chair.
UPDATE 4:40 PM: Michael Steele dropped out of the chairman's race on Friday afternoon and endorsed Maria Cino as his replacment. In the next round of voting, Wisconsin Republican Party chairman Reince Priebus pulled ahead of the pack with 80 votes, needing 85 to win.
ORIGINAL POST: Officially, Republicans are meeting today to select a new chairman of the Republican National Committee. Unofficially, they are about to finally purge the party of any last vestiges of moderation.
The RNC's 168 members will decide the fate of Michael Steele in a major vote to select their next chairman. The election has been closely watched, as Steele has been highly unpopular in many corners of the party. The race is also drawing a lot of attention because, for the first time, outside groups like the tea party-allied FreedomWorks have sought to influence the outcome.
It wasn't so long ago that the RNC was headed up by former tobacco lobbyist and current Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour, who irked social conservatives recently by suggesting that there was room in the party for pro-choice candidates. Ken Mehlman, the RNC chair during the second term of George W. Bush, turned out to be a closeted gay man who has come out in support of gay marriage. But it was clear even last month at two debates for the chairman's race that neither Barbour nor Mehlman would have a prayer of winning back their old jobs today. In the last RNC chair debate, Steele, the lone black man, was the only one of six candidates who rejected a narrow view of the Republican Party. He argued the GOP has room for some ideological diversity and that it might actually need those voices to appeal to the larger American public. He's likely to go down in flames today, toppled by someone who has supported platform purity. Steele's ouster is being engineered by a host of conservatives, most notably Indiana RNC represenative and GOP legal eagle James Bopp.
Last month, Bopp, the longtime counsel to the National Right to Life, joined with the tea party group FreedomWorks to host a forum for RNC chairman candidates in a very public effort to help unseat Steele. Bopp did not support Steele in the last election because of his involvement with the Republican Leadership Council, a political action committee co-founded by pro-choice former New Jersey Governor Christine Todd Whitman and other moderate Republicans who sought to make the party more socially inclusive.
Bopp has been on the forefront of a movement to shrink the GOP's big tent and ensure that it only supports candidates who commit to a fairly limited conservative agenda, and who notably also don't support positions in conflict with the RNC platform on issues like abortion. His activism in the RNC chairman's race is as much an anti-moderate movement as it is an anti-Steele campaign.