Is Michael Steele Ready To Move On?

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Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele is expected to tell committee members Monday whether or not he will seek re-election. His controversial tenure has cost the RNC prestige and cash.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

The controversial head of the Republican National Committee says he wants to keep his job. Chairman Michael Steele will seek a second term. He made the announcement tonight in a conference call with members of the RNC. Winning reelection will be anything but easy.

As NPR's Peter Overby reports, Steele has faced withering criticism for spending too much, raising too little and generally mismanaging the national party apparatus.

PETER OVERBY: Steele's two-year term as chairman has had many more downs than ups. Longtime political analyst Stuart Rothenberg says you have to look a long way back to find a national party committee in so much trouble.

Mr. STUART ROTHENBERG (Editor and Publisher, Rothenberg Political Report): This may be as bad, at least over the last 30 or 40 years, as I've ever seen.

OVERBY: Rothenberg's prescription for healing?

Mr. ROTHENBERG: The RNC needs a dose of good news, and it needs to do some fundraising and get its reputation back.

OVERBY: The committee's reputation took its worst hit of many last spring. An RNC financial report revealed a $2,000 outlay to entertain some committee members at a kinky nightclub in West Hollywood. But the RNC's biggest problem is raising money as it enters the presidential election cycle. Steele was largely sidelined during the recent midterm elections, and he hasn't had much to say recently about his chairmanship, but he does defend the committee's fundraising.

Here he is talking to Fox News just before Election Day, bragging on a haul of $175 million during his tenure.

Mr. MICHAEL STEELE (Chairman, Republican National Committee): We've raised a hundred - think 175, lot of zeroes after it. And you know why and how? Those are dollars that are raised in small increments - $47 is our average donation.

OVERBY: That sounds good. But in the world of political fundraising, small dollar donors can actually be a problem. One of Steele's critics says that to raise that money, the RNC spent well over 50 cents per dollar raised. That critic is Gentry Collins, formerly Steele's political director at the RNC, now running for Steele's job.

At a candidates' forum earlier this month, Collins said the bad fundraising crippled the RNC's vaunted voter mobilization effort.

Mr. GENTRY COLLINS (Political Strategist): The problem in 2010 is that we did not have the resources to deploy that ground game to all of the places in the country where it should have been deployed.

OVERBY: The result, according to Collins, as many as 21 House races slipped away from GOP candidates. The RNC is top heavy with small donors because big donors have stayed away, and Steele hasn't been able to coax them back.

One contender for the chairmanship says he can fix that.

Mr. MIKE DUNCAN (Chairman, American Crossroads and Crossroads GPS): Money is the mother's milk of politics. There's not too much money in politics. There's not enough money.

OVERBY: That's Mike Duncan. He's been party chairman before in the 1990s; and this year, he's chairman of American Crossroads and Crossroads GPS, two outside money groups that acted as a sort of surrogate RNC.

Political scientists at the Wesleyan Media Project say the Crossroads groups were able to spend $30 million on TV ads. But most of that money came in undisclosed amounts from undisclosed donors, while contributions to the RNC have an annual cap of $30,400. That's a limit any RNC chair will have to grapple with to make the national committee important again.

Peter Overby, NPR News, Washington.

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