GOP's Steele Stirring Up Trouble, But That's His Style

Michael Steele.

Unless I'm mistaken, Steele is the first national party chairman caught up in a controversy over expenses to a lesbian bondage club. hide caption

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For Democrats, it's the gift that keeps on giving.

In electing him as their national party chair in January 2009, Michael Steele was supposed to lift the Republicans out of their post-Obama election funk, which if you recall was pretty severe and one that many thought would last a long time. Charismatic and media-savvy, party activists said, as they made Steele the first African-American to head up the GOP.

But his tenure has been controversial from the get go. Early in his term he hinted he might back primary challenges to the three Republican senators who voted for the Obama economic stimulus package (one of them, Arlen Specter of Pa., has since left the party). He got into this unnecessary contretemps with Rush Limbaugh, first calling the conservative radio host an "entertainer" who sometimes made "incendiary" and "ugly" remarks, and then looking foolish in backing down and apologizing. In an interview with GQ magazine, he seemed to be promoting an argument for women to be pro-choice before offering a clarification in which he said he's always been, and always will be, pro-life.

Then came a powerpoint presentation to would-be donors that featured a caricature of Obama as the Joker and linked Democrats to socialism.

That was quickly followed by the revelation that the RNC spent some $1,900 to entertain donors at a West Hollywood sex club. The theme at the club: lesbian bondage. That, along with other stories of spending excesses, has brought ridicule and embarrassment to the party. The latest fallout was the Monday resignation of RNC chief of staff Ken McKay and the announcement by Curt Anderson, a partner at the On Message firm that has long been associated with Steele's political career, that he would sever ties between his firm and the national party.

Steele did not attend the event at the sex club, nor did he have knowledge of the item on the expense report, but that almost didn't matter; the damage was done. Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, urged his supporters not to give money to the RNC. Democrats delighted in putting GOP candidates on the spot by asking them if they still have faith in Steele. Mike Duncan, Steele's predecessor at the RNC, has formed a new organization, American Crossroads, whose goal is to raise $50 million independent of the national party to give to Republican candidates.

Republican strategist Ed Rogers, quoted in a story in today's Washington Post, "said it is 'absolutely not' enough to calm donors, and he suggested that problems with 'sloppy management' at the RNC cannot be solved unless Steele leaves":

"This is a terrible way to deal with the cleanup of the mismanagement," Rogers said. "There's no single gesture or single slaughter or sacrifice that will fix that problem. That problem, for the rest of his tenure, will be managed, not solved."

The Post's story, by Philip Rucker and Chris Cillizza, also points out:

The only people who can remove Steele, however, are the 168 committee members who elected him. It would require a two-thirds majority vote to remove the chairman, whose two-year term expires in January. No committee member has issued a public call for Steele's resignation.

(Tonight, on NPR's All Things Considered, host Michele Norris talks to Colorado GOP chair Dick Wadhams on how the Steele controversy is playing outside of Washington.)

Indeed, Steele has insisted he will not quit, and it's unlikely that he will be pushed out. Since his election, Republicans have picked up governorships in Virginia and New Jersey as well as a Senate seat in Massachusetts. (At the same time, they also lost an upstate New York House seat they've held for more than a century.) They're also raising a lot of money. But they're spending a lot of money too.

Bottom line: Don't expect his contract to be renewed after this year's midterms, regardless of how well Republicans do.

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