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Taking Politics Private

With the help of Michael Steele’s blundering and a Supreme Court decision, the RNC—if not the Republicans—is fast losing its grip.

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Illustration by Tomasz Walenta  

Ever since it was revealed that the Republican National Committee had, as they like to say in da club, made it rain to the tune of $2,000 at a lesbians-in-bondage-themed joint in West Hollywood, the sharks have been circling the leaky, if not completely capsized, vessel that is the GOP chairmanship of Michael Stephen Steele.

This week, Steele did what any sufficiently desperate captain does in such a parlous situation: summarily chuck his first mate overboard. The victim in this case was Steele’s chief of staff, Ken McKay, who reportedly learned that he’d become chum when his wife saw the news on cable. But the ouster of McKay and his replacement with an Ur–Steele loyalist did little to quiet the waters. Instead, the GOP consultant and former Steele adviser Alex Castellanos went on CNN and became the first big-name Republican to call for Steele to quit. “We still have seven months to pull our act together,” Castellanos said. “I think a change at this moment would be a good thing.”

Within a few days, however, the conventional wisdom was congealing around the sense that, barring other embarrassments—which, when it comes to Steele, is akin to saying barring the possibility that the sun rises tomorrow in the east—he would keep his job. No movement to toss him seemed to be stirring inside the party; no obvious replacement has stepped forward. With Steele’s term up in January, Republicans apparently prefer to ride out the rest of the year rather than endure the ugly news cycles that would be guaranteed if they attempted to turf him out now.

Yet even if Steele does survive, the RNC may not, at least not in anything like the form it has traditionally taken or with the power it has traditionally wielded. In the wake of McCain-Feingold and more recently the landmark Citizens United Supreme Court decision on campaign spending, both national parties were already in the process of seeing their roles weakened dramatically and taken over by private interests. That trend is secular and has nothing to do with Steele. But his gaffes, mismanagement, and all-purpose absurdity may very well exacerbate the trend within the GOP—in the process presenting a short-term opportunity for Democrats to do better in 2010 than the political class expects.

None of the personal foibles that have bedeviled Steele in the fourteen months since he became the RNC’s first African-American chair were unknown at the time of his election: the brashness, the blabbiness, the managerial inexperience, the affliction with a variation of Tourette’s in which profanity is replaced by the first-person singular. But even so, there’s been no small irony to the fact that a man who campaigned for the chairmanship explicitly as a solution to the party’s “image problem” has spent so much of his tenure, as one GOP strategist puts it colorfully, “shooting himself in his Johnson.”

Steele’s self-inflicted crotch wounds have surely been an unwelcome distraction for Republicans. But what worries them more is his handling of the party’s dough. Though the RNC announced it raised $11.4 million last month, a record March for a non-presidential year, the DNC hauled in more than $13 million. More to the point, the Republican gusher brought the RNC’s cash on hand to only $11.3 million, a total that indicates the committee was running a deficit before then. “The problem is less the raising than the spending,” says prominent GOP lawyer and strategist Ben Ginsberg. “And, of course, what they’ve been spending the money on.”

The problem for Steele with Voyeurgate and its penumbra wasn’t merely that it highlighted his profligacy or his lack of a handle on the RNC’s outlays, however. It was that, in so doing, it has undermined the confidence of donors and their willingness to open their checkbooks, as well as causing one of the RNC’s top fund-raisers to resign.

The potentially dire financial implications of the situation were a large part of why Castellanos decided to speak out against Steele, for whose 2006 Senate race he was an adviser and for whom he served as an unpaid RNC counselor until recently. “This is an enormously important year for the party, where we could make huge gains,” the consultant told me. “But the truth is that we’re playing against a taller team. We don’t want to wind up being Butler, playing a great game but winding up a basket short.”

For Castellanos—who agrees that, despite his urging, Steele likely isn’t on the way out—the saving grace for the GOP is that its contributors have plenty of other places to put their money so that it will help the party. Beyond the usual alternatives, from the Republican congressional and senatorial campaign committees and the Republican Governors Association, an array of new or newly ambitious vehicles have rolled onto the field. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, for instance, plans to spend a whopping $50 million on issue advocacy and “voter education” this year. And a similar total is being raised by American Crossroads, a new 527 independent-expenditure outfit founded by Karl Rove and a pair of former RNC chairs, which intends to plow the cash directly into targeted House and Senate races.


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