Steele Faces Ire of Senate GOP

Posted March 10, 2009 at 6:46pm

After dodging arrows from his own party for a series of media missteps, Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele is now tempting the fire of Republican Senators, who fear that his lackluster management of their national party organization could cost them at the polls in 2010.

Capitol Hill Republicans are not calling for Steele’s head, and at least one key GOP Senator expects the newly installed RNC chairman to put the committee on even footing in the coming weeks. But Steele’s failure to hire a senior staff 40 days into his tenure is privately anguishing Republican operatives, with some suggesting that February’s fundraising report — due out March 20 — could determine whether the RNC chairman regains or further erodes the confidence of Republicans in Congress.

Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), up for re-election next year, said that for Republicans to be successful in President Barack Obama’s first midterm election and capitalize on what he sees as the potential for gains at the polls, the RNC must deliver for GOP candidates on fundraising, get-out-the-vote activities and messaging.

“We don’t have the luxury of time. I know they’re trying to get staffed up over there, so they’re working it,— said Thune, who won by a very narrow margin in 2004. “It needs to happen soon. Two-year election cycles go very, very quickly. They start earlier, they cost more, and so all of those different components that I just mentioned have to start aligning fairly quickly in order for us to be competitive.—

Curt Anderson, one of three GOP strategists advising Steele as he remodels the RNC, is one of the new chairman’s defenders. Anderson conceded that Steele and his team haven’t done a good job selling their plan to the public, but he argued that Steele is moving to ensure Republicans reverse the trend of the 2006 and 2008 elections, which resulted in massive GOP Congressional losses.

“We want to make sure there’s a new approach to campaigning at the RNC,— said Anderson, a partner in the Republican media consulting firm OnMessage Inc.

Additionally, National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman John Cornyn (Texas) expressed confidence that Steele will ultimately find his footing, and he said he is not worried that his slow start would affect the prospects of GOP Senate candidates next year.

“Right now, they’re having a few bumps starting up. But I expect them to work that out,— Cornyn said.

But many veteran Republican strategists — including some fans of Steele — aren’t buying that. Neither are some senior Republican Senate aides on Capitol Hill.

They are mystified at the slow pace of hiring at the RNC since the former Maryland lieutenant governor and 2006 Senate candidate won the chairman’s post on Jan. 30. Upon his victory, Steele initiated personnel house-cleaning at all levels, and has since operated the committee on a skeleton staff. Some individuals in key positions left on their own.

Without a chief of staff, political director, finance director, research director, field director or other senior personnel on board three weeks before the end of the first quarter, Republicans in Washington, D.C., are describing Steele’s leadership as rudderless and problematic. Plus, Steele’s spat with conservative radio talk-show host Rush Limbaugh and his other early gaffes haven’t helped advance his position.

“I think on the Republican Senate side, people are justifiably unhappy with how Steele’s tenure has started,— one GOP Senate aide said. “He either forgot or did not fully realize his role as RNC chair with the immediate priorities being organizing and fundraising — not simply going on TV, particularly when he doesn’t even have a staff in place.—

Anderson said the senior staff would be in place by late March or early April. He said more than 1,400 résumés have been submitted for the open positions and that more than 60 interviews have been conducted for director-level positions.

Although the Democratic National Committee has Obama to boost fundraising, the RNC has a great brand in the political donor community and has long been a cash cow for the Congressional campaign committees and its candidates.

Some Republican strategists believe the heat on Steele could increase exponentially if the DNC reports outraising the GOP committee in February. With open, GOP-held seats up in at least three expensive swing states in 2010, including Florida, Missouri and Ohio, Senate Republicans are particularly concerned.

The RNC, which in recent years has far outpaced the DNC, maintained its edge over the Democratic committee in January in both contributions and cash on hand.

“They’ve got some internal issues they need to reconcile,— said one D.C.-based GOP operative. “I would have thought the people advising him would have had a better plan post-election— for the RNC chairmanship.

Anderson, who is advising Steele along with GOP consultants Blaise Hazelwood and Jim Dyke, countered that there is a plan in place. In particular, Steele is preparing the RNC to operate in an environment in which it cannot rely on a president to drive fundraising.

Anderson said Steele charged a transition team of 10 with reviewing every division within the RNC to determine if it should be reorganized for better efficiency or eliminated altogether.

Anderson explained that those reviews took a month to complete, and are now being studied to determine how to build a leaner, more politically effective committee.

When Steele assumed command of the RNC, its monthly overhead was $5.5 million, which Anderson called fine for the height of a presidential campaign but untenable moving forward. Counter to what multiple Republican operatives contend, Anderson said the fundraising division was the one department not gutted by Steele when he took over.

“The RNC from a fundraising standpoint had become the political arm of the White House. Well, that’s gone,— said Anderson, who worked at the RNC under Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour when he won the chairmanship in 1993. “You have to be able to do more with less.—