- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 4, 2010

Republican National Committee Chairman Michael S. Steele has maneuvered through a minefield of internal discontent, emerging from a critical party gathering with his authority intact and a strategy to harness the energy of the “tea party” movement to the Republican cause.

High-profile Republican gubernatorial wins in Virginia and New Jersey and a victory in the recent special Senate election in Massachusetts have helped quiet grumbling within the RNC over Mr. Steele, whose position and authority seemed shaky just a few months ago.

A feared open revolt against the former Maryland lieutenant governor fizzled at the 168-member RNC’s winter gathering in Honolulu over the weekend, despite lingering questions about the party’s finances and the chairman’s side business dealings.

“The party came away from its winter meeting fired up and unified,” said North Dakota GOP Chairman Gary Emineth, a Steele supporter on the RNC. Mr. Steele “had the benefit of New Jersey, Virginia and Massachusetts to build on, because the RNC invested significant financial resources and time, which paid off.”

“If there is any concern, it is the limited amount of cash on hand with a huge opportunity before us in 2010,” Mr. Emineth added.

In the view of RNC General Counsel Reince Priebus, who is also Wisconsin GOP state chairman, the “embattled” label on Mr. Steele “is nothing but fiction.”

Mr. Steele is “popular with the members of the RNC, and he is doing a fantastic job in raising money, winning elections and keeping members happy,” Mr. Priebus said.

Some RNC members critical of Mr. Steele said the party’s recent election victories, the need for party unity and improving prospects for November have quieted - for now - questions about his leadership and the RNC’s role in the party’s rebound. They say other party organizations, notably the Republican Governors Association, headed by Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, and the National Republican Senatorial Committee, led by Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, could claim at least as much credit.

Looking to move independents and angry fiscal hawks to the Republican column in November, Mr. Steele has said he is at heart a “town haller” who is wooing the insurgent tea party movement into the Republican camp. But it was former House Majority Leader Dick Armey, not Mr. Steele, who invited tea party movement leaders to Honolulu to talk with senior party officials.

Some members question just how prepared the RNC is to capture some of the tea party movement’s energy.

“We were not presented with a formal RNC strategy to harness the energy of the tea party movement during this meeting in Honolulu,” Indiana RNC member Jim Bopp Jr. told The Washington Times. “As a result, several of us reached out to Dick Armey directly by inviting him to attend.”

Many RNC members remain unhappy over revelations that the party chairman has moonlighted by giving paid speeches and going on a tour to promote his new book while holding down the supposedly full-time RNC post.

But Mr. Steele sidestepped several embarrassing challenges during the gathering in Honolulu.

His biggest challenge came in the form of two proposed resolutions intended to discourage him - and party leaders in general - from giving RNC money and campaign advice to primary and general election candidates who dont endorse a set list of policies and philosophical principles.

He fought the resolutions - derided as a “purity test” by opponents - as an infringement on his authority and a challenge to the party’s “big-tent” approach to expanding its base.

The full committee approved instead what appeared to be a watered-down compromise version of the motion, written by Texas RNC member Bill Crocker.

Some conservatives on the RNC insisted, however, that the Crocker resolution accomplished their intended purpose, even without detailing what principles a party candidate should accept before receiving money.

“The resolution that [Mr. Crocker] authored actually embodied the spirit of those resolutions and was unanimously accepted by the committee,” said New Hampshire RNC member Phyllis Woods, a former state legislator.

RNC former General Counsel David Norcross agreed. “Clearly, there are a lot of activists eager to disrupt Obama and the Democrats’ sharp swerve to the left,” Mr. Norcross, an RNC member from New Jersey, told The Times. “In the last few years that we held power, we obviously disappointed them.”

“It is essential that we let them know that we understand their disappointment and explain how we intend to proceed,” Mr. Norcross said. “This resolution does that.”

Added Willes Lee, former chairman of the Hawaii Republican Party and a member of the state party’s executive committee, “Chairman Steele can’t simply say, ‘I am a tea partier,’ to play identity politics. His strategy has to be the truth - if he can’t assure tea party members that the GOP believes what they believe, they’ll see right though it.”

Another planned motion by RNC members - directing Mr. Steele to stop making paid speeches and to turn over the proceeds of his book’s sales to the party - was never offered.

Three considerations ultimately prevailed among dissidents: a desire not to rock the boat in an election year; fear that financial help would be denied to state parties whose RNC members challenged Mr. Steele; and the feeling that Mr. Steele’s authority would only be enhanced if the resolutions were offered but fell short.

Less clear was the RNC chairman’s success in fighting off resolutions that proponents said would temper the tea party movement’s distrust of the GOPs commitment to restraining government growth and spending and bring the party more in line with the movements conservatism.

Questions also remain within the party hierarchy over Mr. Steele’s management of party finances since he took over in a closely fought contest in January 2009.

The RNC reported that it has less cash on hand now than when Mr. Steele took office ($8.7 million now, compared with $22.8 million a year ago), with smaller contributions up but major donations down. The RNC did outraise the rival Democratic National Committee in the most recent reporting period, $6.8 million to $4.5 million, according to the Federal Election Commission.

Still, Wisconsin’s Mr. Priebus said the relatively low-drama Honolulu meeting was good news for Mr. Steele and good for the party.

“You saw that last week at the RNC meeting - no litmus test, no controversy and a well-run meeting,” Mr. Priebus said. “The members understand our place in history and are anxious to rebuild credibility, work with and be a part of the movement on the ground and win elections in 2010.”

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