GOP marginalizing Michael Steele in run-up to midterm elections

The GOP is turning to party leaders other than Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele in an effort to raise money and resuscitate its image before the midterm elections.

Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele speaks during a news conference on Capitol Hill on Dec. 14. One GOP consultant has called on Mr. Steele to resign to help the party overcome several scandals before the midterm elections.

The GOP can still score major gains in the fall elections, despite the recent embarrassments out of its national committee, party activists say.

But to achieve that, the party will rely heavily on skilled leaders outside of Republican National Committee (RNC) headquarters, where the rocky tenure of Chairman Michael Steele has posed a major distraction and raised concerns about fundraising.

Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, chairman of the Republican Governors Association and a former RNC chairman, frequently comes up as a party tactician seen as working effectively toward his goal: to get as many Republicans elected governor this fall as possible.

The GOP’s House and Senate campaign committees are also working under favorable conditions, given the down economy, President Obama’s sinking poll numbers, and abysmal job approvals of Democratic leaders in Congress.

At a 'Crossroads'?

A new political group organized by former GOP officials, American Crossroads, could also take up some of the slack left by the troubled RNC – and divert funds. The group, which is soliciting donations from wealthy Republicans and corporations, seeks to raise $52 million to be spent on GOP candidates around the country. It is being run by former RNC chairman Mike Duncan and former RNC co-chair Jo Ann Davidson, with advice from another former RNC chair, Ed Gillespie, and former Bush White House adviser Karl Rove.

In effect, Chairman Steele is being marginalized. Steele’s term as leader expires in January, and for now, there appears to be no organized effort to oust him.

“He becomes a caretaker if these guys effectively work around him,” says a former party official. “If Rove and Gillespie are successful, and [John] Boehner and [Mitch] McConnell [the House and Senate GOP leaders] are too, he will become less and less relevant – not that he’s not relevant, but his role will be less and less significant.”

Steele won election as the RNC’s first black chairman in January 2009, with high hopes that he would bring charisma and diversity to a party that had been badly beaten in the two previous election cycles. But his gaffes have been legion, and last week, the party came in for considerable embarrassment when it was caught spending nearly $2,000 at a risqué Los Angeles night club.

Key allies abandon Steele

Steele himself did not visit the club, but the scandal reflected poorly on his leadership. Days later, his chief of staff left the RNC and one of Steele’s closest advisers cut off ties to him.

On Tuesday, an RNC member from New Hampshire resigned over the party’s handling of money. Also on Tuesday, prominent GOP consultant Alex Castellanos called on Steele to resign.

The RNC is fighting to restore its image. Last month’s fundraising was at an all-time high for the March of a midterm election year, $11.4 million, the RNC announced. Still, cash on hand reports show a party that is not flush. In past cycles, the RNC has been a critical source of funds for the party committees, and former GOP officials have expressed concern that the party will not be able to maximize its opportunities in November.

Republican strategists are optimistic that, given the political environment, the party will make major pickups in House, Senate, and governors’ seats in November.

“There’s a certain level of infrastructure that’s certainly important,” says David Winston, a Republican pollster. “But ultimately, it’s the broader message and the American people’s sense of who they want to have govern the country that matters."

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