Are Sarah Palin and Michael Steele an item?
Not romantically, of course. But Palin’s conspicuous support for the embattled RNC chairman in recent weeks has a lot of Republican heads turning.
First, she appeared on a RNC fundraising mailer in July. Then she gave a shout-out to Steele on Fox News, painting him as more in tune with the conservative base than other members of the GOP establishment. “More power to Michael Steele,” she said.
Then, the RNC announced Palin would be headlining two fundraising “rallies” with Steele in October.
Meanwhile, Steele has made several overtures to conservatives, including warmly embracing Delaware Senate candidate Christine O’Donnell when the rest of the GOP establishment was still bellyaching over what some believe is a lost Senate seat.
Steele has also praised Tea Party activists on his national “Fire Pelosi” bus tour. At the launch event for the bus tour were two Tea Party favorites: Reps. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota and Joe Wilson of South Carolina.
What makes Steele’s recent veer to the right surprising is that he has long-faced ideological criticism from conservatives during his tenure as RNC chair. For instance, Steele fought a push by RNC members to call President Obama a “socialist,” once referred to abortion as an “individual choice” and expressed doubts about whether the war in Afghanistan is winnable, all of which provoked rebukes from parts of the conservative establishment.
But to complicate matters further, the Washington Times reported that Palin only agreed to raise money for the RNC in return for the RNC paying hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of Palin’s legal expenses dating back to the 2008 campaign.
So what’s really going on?
Some of Steele’s critics are fearful of a Palin-Steele alliance. One RNC member, an influential Steele opponent, said Palin could give Steele credibility with conservative activists, which could go a long way towards absolving Steele of what critics say are his many, many sins as RNC chair.
Some take this line of thinking further, suspecting that Palin might work to get Steele reelected as RNC chair, believing he could be a useful ally if she were to run for president in 2012.
On the other hand, the backing of the Republican Party isn’t always that helpful in Republican primaries – just ask Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, who as head of the National Republican Senatorial Committee has seen NRSC-endorsed candidates lose a number of primary battles this cycle against upstart grassroots candidates.
Others say it’s just about the money. A GOP strategist close to the situation said the RNC has been negotiating with Palin over her legal expenses ever since the 2008 presidential election. “Somebody at the RNC promised to pay those expenses, before Steele even came in as chairman” the source said, adding that they’ve been haggling over it ever since.
NEXT: What does Palin think?
The question of what’s really going on had even Palin’s brother, Chuck Heath, Jr., wondering. He called Palin and afterwards told The Daily Caller, “This election presents an opportunity to elect conservative candidates and stop the Obama-Reid-Pelosi agenda. Sarah is doing everything she can to help that happen, including her fundraising for the RNC and work for the Republican Governors Association, the Tea Party, Freedom, and Liberty groups.”
“She’s currently crisscrossing the country drumming up support for conservative candidates; she is not afraid to stick her neck out for an underdog she believes in,” Heath said, referring to Palin’s endorsements of candidates.
RNC spokesman Doug Heye did not address a possible Steele-Palin alliance, but did say Steele was grateful for her support.
“The committee engaged in trying to get the Governor to be involved for a while, knowing what a great asset she is to the Republican Party and our candidates. We’re obviously very pleased and honored that she is doing so much to help Republican candidates,” Heye said.