Republican National Committee chairman Michael Steele has had no trouble attracting media coverage, but holding onto the party’s biggest donors has been more difficult.
Since Steele became chairman in January 2009, a growing number of prominent GOP donors has stopped contributing to the RNC, choosing instead to direct their money to outlets such as the party’s Senatorial Committee.
“There are a whole lot of troubling things going on, and it’s something that gets talked about with some frequency,” said a major Republican donor who spoke on condition of anonymity. “These are people who are longtime, loyal donors — serious, successful people — and to be in the front page of newspapers because someone put a chit in for going to a sex club, it’s just dumb.”
According to filings with the Federal Election Commission, at least eight of the RNC’s top individual donors have declined to contribute in the past 14 months, a list that includes Home Depot co-founder Bernard Marcus and real-estate mogul Harlan Crow. Each of the individuals had a record of contributing thousands to the RNC in past years but since 2009 have chosen to direct their money to the NRSC, National Republican Congressional Committee or individual campaign committees.
Marcus, who did not respond to attempts to contact him, donated $25,000 to the RNC in 2008, but nothing since. In that span he gave $70,000 to the NRSC and $12,500 to the NRCC. Crow gave $27,000 to the RNC in 2008 but nothing after, though he has given almost $90,000 combined to the other two committees. Other donors including telecom tycoon Kenny Troutt and fast food magnate Jason LeVecke followed similar patterns.
Since Steele took over the RNC he has been buffeted by charges of excessive spending, punctuated this week by a Daily Caller story that revealed RNC staffers charged a $2,000 trip to a bondage-themed nightclub in West Hollywood to donors. While a junior staffer in charge of that excursion has been fired, the resulting media firestorm has managed to once again incite Steele’s numerous critics.
While most donors contacted declined to speak on the record, Mark DeMoss, chief executive of an Atlanta-based PR company, has been vocal about his displeasure with Steele following the unearthing earlier this month of an RNC fund-raising document which mocked President Obama, House Speaker Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.
“After the ridiculous presentation by the finance chairman down in Boca Grande, I’d written Michael Steele that I would not contribute to the party or to any of the committees, and would only give now directly to candidates,” DeMoss told The Daily Caller on Tuesday.
While the nightclub charge has drawn the most attention, donors seem more concerned about the RNC’s lavish spending on luxury hotels, limousines and other travel-related expenses.
“I think the party loses any moral standing to talk with credibility about how Democrats are spending taxpayer money when the RNC is being arguably as reckless with donor money,” DeMoss said. “This has given the RNC the opportunity to quibble over whether he was there and I don’t care if he knew about that – he certainly knew about the private jets and the limousines and five star hotels.”
“To have staff people flying around on private jets and spending five figures at hotels — it was never done that way historically,” said one donor. “When you’re out trying to raise money people expect you to act responsibly, and acting responsibly starts at the top.”
Other critics have questioned the professionalism of RNC leadership, which approved the expenditure.
“There does appear to be a real issue with the RNC’s discipline and command over its activities and representatives,” said one local Republican consultant who asked not to be identified to speak candidly. “This damaging story could have been avoided if hard dollars weren’t spent to reimburse this guy for the tab … the lesson being you need to have reliable people responsible for planning these events and not just “wing it.” Of course, “winging it” appears to be Steele’s approach to everything.”
“I do think that everything rises and falls on leadership. The chairman sets the tone and hires the staff and sets the agenda,” DeMoss said. “The chairman tolerates certain behavior or not — he’s ultimately responsible and for Republicans it’s a tragedy right now that a ridiculous expense report has squandered some real political capital … Instead the country is fixated on who turned in this expense report … I can’t imagine screwing it up any more than that.”