Associated Press Writer
WASHINGTON — In the most favorable political environment for Republicans in decades, GOP chairman Michael Steele ordinarily might be lavished with praise for leading his party to the brink of a historic triumph.
Instead, he heads an organization that trails Democrats by $15 million in fundraising, is in debt and largely has been overshadowed by third-party groups that, in a few months, have raised almost as much as the Republican National Committee has since January 2009.
Steele’s gaffes and missteps have clouded his nearly two-year tenure. In the past few weeks, he has been content to steer clear of the nation’s capital, making a 48-state tour to help GOP candidates. He was in New Hampshire on Friday and joined Sarah Palin at a Florida rally Saturday, where he praised tea party supporters as a group that “restored our faith in the Constitution.”
If Republicans make major gains on Nov. 2, Steele certainly would claim part of the credit as he considers whether to seek another term at chairman.
The RNC has raised more than $79 million this year and has spent all of it — and then some. The RNC ended September with about $3.4 million in cash on hand and $4.6 million in debt. The RNC also took out a $2.5 million loan in September.
Steele had started the job with a $23 million surplus. That money is long gone.
Still, he may receive favorable reviews from the 168-member central party, in part because of his spending. Steele has doled out cash to some state parties. He’s paid the salaries of more than 350 operatives beyond Washington.
He’s sent money to places that typically don’t benefit from the party’s donors, such as Democratic-leaning Illinois.
That has left Steele with plenty of good will from state leaders.
But operatives in Washington are frustrated that Steele has spent so much time on the bus tour, rather than focusing on the committee’s finances. The role of party chairman typically is behind the scenes, coaxing millions.
“I’ve learned how to multi-task in this job,” Steele said. “You can continue to raise money. There’s a little thing called a cell phone, so I can call a donor while I’m on the bus.”
Steele’s early actions made him toxic to some donors.
One national committeeman resigned in disgust over the lavish spending and inadequate financial oversight, including a donor party at a lesbian bondage club in West Hollywood, Calif. That outing at the Voyeur nightclub, which Steele did not join, forced the ouster of Steele’s chief of staff, chief consultant, finance director, deputy finance director and liaison to young Republicans.
Donors dismayed with his stewardship gave to groups such as American Crossroads and Crossroads GPS, a political committee and affiliate led by veterans of President George W. Bush’s campaigns, or the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. American Crossroads has spent a combined $27.7 million; the Chamber $23.7 million so far.
“The party committees, they’re hurting. The RNC has done terribly,” said Chris Maiorana, a strategist who worked on Republicans Senate efforts. ”It’s not through lack of effort or smarts that they are running into problems.”
Maiorana said the energy among activists is for House and Senate candidates, not the party leaders who work out of massive headquarters on Capitol Hill.
RNC officials insist they welcome the outside efforts and explain the groups’ spending on ads has allowed the central party to focus on its get-out-the-vote operation.
Few Republicans have rushed to oust Steele, the party’s first African-American chairman, or begin a public campaign to challenge him when he faces the committee at a yet-unscheduled meeting next year.
Steele’s situation is comparable to former Democratic National Committee chairman Howard Dean, whose 50-state strategy and largesse won him scores of friends in state parties
but angered Washington Democrats.
Associated Press writers Jim Kuhnhenn in Washington, Holly Ramer in Concord, N.H., and Mike Schneider in Orlando contributed to this report.