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Steele’s side pursuits drive away big donors
Some wealthy contributors are shunning the Republican National Committee and donating instead to the other GOP campaign committees or directly to candidates - in many cases because of discontent with the leadership of Michael S. Steele, the party’s national chairman.
“I don’t plan to give to the Republican National Committee this cycle, and no other major donor I know is planning to either,” Christine Toretti, a Pennsylvania RNC member and a longtime major donor to the RNC and other GOP campaign committees and causes, told The Washington Times.
Mrs. Toretti said that she and other major donors have never received a telephone call from Mr. Steele soliciting money for the RNC, the GOP’s chief campaign fundraising committee.
Lawrence Bathgate, who served a record three times as RNC finance chairman during and after the Reagan era, told The Times, “No, I haven’t given to the RNC this cycle.”
“I will help the Republican Governors Association and the National Republican Congressional Committee and National Republican Senatorial Committee this year. I’ve made commitments,” Mr. Bathgate said.
Mr. Steele, a former Maryland lieutenant governor, has had a contentious tenure as RNC chairman after his election a year ago, with open infighting among party officials over his leadership.
The Times first reported displeasure by RNC members, including several former party chairmen, over Mr. Steele’s acceptance of pay for speeches while holding down his full-time job as national chairman, for which he receives $223,500 a year plus unlimited expenses. To the further consternation of party elders and many rank-and-file members, he has embarked on a promotional tour for his new book, “Right Now: A 12-Step Program for Defeating the Obama Agenda.”
Mr. Steele; his chief of staff, Ken McKay; RNC Treasurer Randy Pullen; and RNC press secretary Gail Gitcho all declined to respond to questions posed by The Times about his private business pursuits.
Republican donors have been far more generous recently to the Republican Governors Association (RGA) and the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC) than to the RNC, despite polls showing that Democrats in Congress are vulnerable and conceivably could lose control of the House and several Senate seats.
The RGA has $25 million cash on hand - compared with the RNC’s $8,749,091 cash on hand. The Democratic National Committee - which historically has been outraised by the RNC - had $13,187,246 cash on hand and was $5 million in debt as of Nov. 30, according to the latest Federal Election Commission report.
Under Mr. Steele, the RNC - which had nearly $23 million in cash and no debts when he took office - spent heavily last year on a string of off-year races, winning big victories in the Virginia and New Jersey gubernatorial contests but losing two special House races in New York. But the spending has left the RNC with far less money to spend than in other election cycles.
At this time in 2005, the RNC had $34 million in cash on hand, but even that wasn’t enough to keep the party from losing its House and Senate majorities in November 2006, for the first time in 12 years.
The imbalance could mean that congressional Republican leaders such as Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and House Minority Leader John A. Boehner of Ohio will have fewer resources from the national party coffers for the 2010 midterms, compared with the Republican gubernatorial hopefuls supported by RGA Chairman Haley Barbour.
The GOP has targeted from 48 to 70 House races - it won’t say publicly exactly how many - for November, far more than in 2005. Party officials say privately that they will need at least $50 million cash on hand by this fall to augment spending by the NRCC in those House races and to help the NRSC pick up four to six seats.
Mrs. Toretti said the rise in giving to the RGA and NRSC “tells me major donors don’t have confidence in the RNC chairman.”
The disparity comes as leading party figures are increasingly going public with their unhappiness over the RNC under Mr. Steele’s direction.
“I am not here to beat up on an RNC chairman,” former Republican National Committee Chairman Jim Nicholson told The Times, “because I know how big and important the job is and what opportunities can be created.”
“But that is just the point - under those circumstances, I do not see how a chairman can do book tours and give speeches for fees that go to him and not the RNC, which needs more money badly,” said Mr. Nicholson, who was President George W. Bush’s secretary of veterans affairs.
“You cannot serve two masters in that job,” Mr. Nicholson said. “I think when elected, you agree to give the RNC and its mission 100 percent of your efforts.”
Hari Sevugan, Democratic National Committee spokesman, said that “to the best of our knowledge, no Democratic national chairman has written a book or promoted his book while serving as national chairman.”
Critics say Mr. Steele’s new book, which retails for $18, is an example of using his office and title for personal gain. On the front of the dust jacket is his RNC title and a large color picture of the author.
Mr. Steele suffered another blow this week when a key ally, Florida Republican Party Chairman Jim Greer, was forced to resign after criticism from conservatives and from RNC officials who also have criticized Mr. Steele.
A number of major contributors - some of whom declined to state their complaints on the record - said Mr. Steele has not made personal calls to them as all other chairmen have. Some said they were astounded that he told a television interviewer this week that he didn’t think the Republicans would recapture the House this year and wasn’t sure they were “ready” to retake the majority. He hurriedly backtracked on his comments after his remarks sparked a political firestorm.
Many said the party chairman’s most important task is making fundraising calls and solidifying personal relations as a way to fill the party’s campaign war chest.
“No one has called asking me for money, and I don’t know of any major donor who has been called,” Mrs. Toretti said. “The only attempt Michael made to get money was a trip he made to see Dick Scaife, and he didn’t get any money from him for the RNC.”
Mr. Scaife is a wealthy Pennsylvania Republican and longtime major contributor to GOP and conservative causes.
Some wealthy Republicans complain that major events hosted by Mr. Steele lump $1,000 donors with $25,000 donors and $50,000 donors, when contributors tend to want to be grouped with those who gave similar amounts. At least one of Mr. Steele’s events for major donors had to be canceled for lack of interest.
Mr. Steele’s paid speeches also continue to upset his critics.
Al Hoffman, twice elected RNC finance chairman, said, “I don’t think it appropriate for an RNC chairman to be making speeches and money on the side. I never thought an RNC chairman should do anything in the way of fiscal pursuits that could become a distraction.”
RNC ethics rules appear to forbid anyone working for the national committee from taking outside income or using a committee position for personal gain.
About the Author
Chief political writer Ralph Z. Hallow served on the Chicago Tribune, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Washington Times editorial boards, was Ford Foundation Fellow in Urban Journalism at Northwestern University, resident at Columbia University Editorial-Page Editors Seminar and has filed from Berlin, Bonn, London, Paris, Geneva, Vienna, Amman, Beirut, Cairo, Damascus, Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Belgrade, Bucharest, Panama and Guatemala.
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