RNC Chairman Steele: I saved GOP from ‘potentially ruinous’ Tea Party schism

Jon Ward Contributor
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Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele, fighting to salvage his reputation and possibly another term, is arguing that he saved the GOP from a schism by reaching out to the Tea Party over the last two years.

“The RNC welcomed the energy and limited government principles of Tea Party voters and grassroots conservatives, and worked hard to ensure that their views found expression within the Republican party, and not in a potentially ruinous third-party movement,” Steele said in a five-page memo sent to committee members Thursday.

“While President Obama and the Washington crowd treated the Tea Party with disdain or condescension, the RNC accorded them respect,” Steele wrote, in a clear allusion to Republican officials such as Karl Rove and Sen. John Cornyn, the Texas Republican who ran the National Republican Senatorial Committee.

Steele implies that his efforts during the past two years were instrumental in keeping the Tea Party movement from splitting off into a third party.

“Given the shambles the party was in at the end of 2008, circumstances were ripe for a new party to emerge,” Steele wrote. “Encouraging those millions of disaffected conservative voters to become active Republicans was at the center of the RNC’s turnout strategy.”

As for specifics, Steele said the RNC set up 360 offices throughout the country, made 45 million voter contacts in 2010, and conducted “hundreds of rallies and countless media events in 48 states in the weeks leading up to the election,” as part of a bus tour he headlined.

To date, as Steele has weathered heavy criticisms from within the GOP and even from aides who have quit the RNC in the last week, he and his aides have focused mostly on their fundraising totals, which at more than $179 million were more “by far than any other entity” in the cycle.

In the wake of a blistering critique of Steele’s fundraising and spending by Gentry Collins, who quit his job this week as RNC political director, the chairman switched much of his energy to an argument that he has hinted at in the past few weeks but never laid out so extensively, at least in public.

It is part of a message strategy that Steele will no doubt employ if he does seek a second term, casting himself as the outsider and Tea Party candidate up against insider establishment forces in the GOP. Because most estimates are that Steele has lost the support he needs within the RNC’s 168 members to win 86 votes and a second term, leveraging such a message to place public pressure on the insular body may be his best and only strategy to salvage hopes of a second run.

Yet he will have a hard time knocking down the facts laid out in Collins’s own four-page memo which he released upon leaving the RNC.

Collins said that Steele raised his money at a very high cost, using about 70 cents of every dollar for fundraising. The RNC, Collins said, has historically spent a little less than half of every dollar raised on the effort to raise that money.

Much of the reason for this high burn rate is likely that Steele raised much his money through direct mail. The most recent reports show that from February to mid-October, the RNC spent $68 million on direct mail.

Collins said the reason that fundraising went in a more cost-intensive direction under Steele is because the chairman “allowed its major donor base to wither.” In the last two midterm cycles, 2002 and 2006, he said, the RNC raised $284 million and $243 million, respectively, compared to the $170 million he said Steele had raised.

The RNC raised “a fraction” of the money it has in the past from big dollar donors, Collins said. Steele’s retort is that the RNC gained 685,000 new donors.

Collins also said that Steele spent too much of the money he netted in fundraising on “things other than winning elections.” Complaints about spending profligacy mounted in early 2009, and were punctuated in March when The Daily Caller reported that the RNC had reimbursed a staffer nearly $2,000 for an outing at a lesbian bondage-themed nightclub.

A former Steele staffer told TheDC this week that the chairman has “Charlie Rangel syndrome,” a reference to the New York congressman who was found guilty by a congressional panel this week of ethics violations for abusing his office.

One of the Steele’s other main points is that the RNC raised nearly 40 percent more in the 2010 cycle than the Democratic National Committee did in 2006. The comparison is meant to be a mirror image, showing that the RNC did better than the DNC in a situation where each sides’ party was out of power in the White House and Congress.

But the RNC raised more in 2006 under then-chairman Ken Mehlman, bringing in $243 million that cycle. When that point is raised, Steele pivots to point out that Republicans didn’t control the White House or Congress this cycle, making his job more difficult.

The political environment for Republicans this year was far better than it was in 2006. In addition, the NRSC raised more this cycle — more than $105 million so far — than the $88 million it raised in 2006.

The National Republican Congressional Campaign Committee, however, raised less this cycle than in 2006, like the RNC. Former Rep. Tom Reynolds led the NRCC when he was chairman to a $149 million haul in 2006, while the NRCC took in $107 million this cycle under the current chairman, Rep. Pete Sessions of Texas.

On top of all this, the RNC canceled its 72-hour, get-out-the-vote effort because it did not have enough money for it, and numerous Republicans have complained that one or two Senate seats, roughly a dozen House seats, and even two governorships could have been won on top of the GOP’s record gains Nov. 2 if such an effort had been in place.

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