Steele says GOP has been transformed during his tenure, defends his rocky term

Jon Ward Contributor
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Michael Steele won’t officially say he’s running for a second term as chair of the Republican National Committee, but an interview with reporters at his Capitol Hill offices Friday afternoon made it clear that he’s eager to defend his record if he does.

Steele spent more than 30 minutes at the beginning of the session touting his record over the last two years, aiming to disarm critics within his own party who say he has been an ineffective chairman whose failures have been covered up by a historic wave election.

Steele cast himself as responsible for a large portion of the GOP’s success, at one point comparing the RNC and the state Republican parties to the U.S. Marine Corps.

“What we do is to go where no one will go and do what others can’t do to secure the victory,” Steele said, saying he invested in parts of the country that have not usually been Republican strongholds.

He also said that the Republican Party has been “transformed” in the last two years.

“It is no longer a southern, mostly white regional party,” said Steele, the first African-American chairman of the RNC. “This is not your momma and your daddy’s GOP anymore.”

“I inherited a party that no one wanted to be a part of,” Steele said. “There were a number of steps that we had to take to get us to the point where this past Tuesday could happen.”

Steele denied that the gathering was intended to launch his reelection to a second term.

“It’s not the purpose of this meeting,” he said. “I apologize if you think that that’s why you’re here. There are far more interesting ways to wow you … if that was my purpose.”

The biggest criticism of Steele has focused on his use of the RNC’s large financial resources.

When Steele took the reins in early 2009, the RNC had a $23 million surplus. In a year where the RNC traditionally stockpiles cash in advance of an election year, Steele spent $90 million and ended the year with only $8 million in the bank.

Steele raised more than $185 million over the last two years, he said Friday. But at the end of September the RNC had only $3.4 million in its war chest, and was $4.6 million in debt, not including a $2.5 million loan the organization took out in September.

Republicans at the two other major committees have been incensed by Steele’s spending. In 2006, the Republican Congressional Campaign Committee and National Republican Senatorial Committee received $40 million in transfers from the RNC.

In 2010, the two committees got $2 million each. One official estimated that they could have won 75 seats this cycle instead of 61 to 63 seats with that extra money.

Steele’s critics say his tale of expanding the playing field is a cover for a blatant attempt to buy votes for a reelection. The five U.S. territories have 15 of the 168 votes up for grabs within the RNC central committee, and Steele has made trips to a number of them, along with giving them money.

Pressed to defend his record, Steele said: “Everybody has a learning curve and clearly I have mine.”

His mea culpa extended mostly to his habit of verbal missteps, not to spending. He said the $2,000 spent in February at a lesbian bondage-themed strip club in California, first reported by TheDC, was the result of “rogue employees doing crazy stuff.”

Yet Steele was visibly irritated by questions about the spending, dismissing it as an effort to “nitpick every expenditure.” Asked whether he believed the RNC has been spent well, aside from a handful of mistakes or questionable purchases, Steele said, “I do.”

Steele said the decision was to get competitive in off-year elections to try to stop Democrats’ momentum following President Obama’s 2008 win, and to start building a ground game for 2010.

“That’s great to stockpile cash,” Steele said, “ but I’m not going to win elections if I do that.”

“We’re not going to be an effective force on the ground if we don’t invest those resources early,” Steele said. “I spent our money early because we wanted to win the election.”

Steele’s chief of staff, Michael Leavitt, said that in 2009, the RNC spent $9 million in Virginia and $4 million in New Jersey for the gubernatorial elections there, $4 million in the messaging war against Obama’s health care bill, $4 million to pay off debt for the NRCC and NRSC, and $500,000 in Pennsylvania on the state’s supreme court, which has an influential role in redistricting.

Steele touted the establishment of 360 or so offices throughout the country and 45 million voter contacts – more than the 154 offices and 31 million contacts in 2008 – as evidence of the RNC’s grassroots voter outreach.

Pollster Frank Luntz did a brief presentation on the impact of Tea Party voters, arguing that the RNC’s grassroots efforts made the difference in ensuring that disaffected Republicans and Independents who identify with the Tea Party were convinced to vote for GOP candidates.

Luntz asked Steele across a long conference room table what others had missed that the RNC had been in tune to.

“I’m a grassroots guy. I’ve always played at that level,” Steele said.

As for other Republicans who have criticized him, Steele said, “They of all people should know what team means, particularly when we’re in the midst of a battle.”

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