Republican National Committee Chairman Michael S. Steele can't seem to catch a break these days. On the day when the RNC announced a record fundraising haul for March, the rival Democratic National Committee revealed that it had collected an even bigger amount.
The national Republican headquarters office announced that party donors had given $11.4 million last month - the most ever for the March of a midterm election year. Mr. Steele said in a statement that the total was "a testament of America's opposition to the Democrats' government-run health care legislation."
It was the best fundraising month ever for the RNC under Mr. Steele and a nearly 50 percent increase over February totals.
But DNC officials announced hours later that the party had raised more than $13 million in the same period, which a DNC spokesman also attributed to the passions aroused by the health care debate.
"It's clear supporters of reform were more generous than opponents," said DNC Communications Director Brad Woodhouse.
Both parties apparently were struggling to score public relations points with the fundraising announcements, which were made nearly two weeks earlier than usual, when monthly reports to the Federal Election Commission are due. Neither party Wednesday released more detailed statements on the sources of the money, the number of donors or the size of the average donation.
The RNC's fundraising record has been under particularly intense scrutiny as questions have mounted in recent days about Mr. Steele's leadership. The former Maryland lieutenant governor has faced criticism for questionable spending approved by the RNC, his own contentious style and management skills, and the RNC's thin cash cushion heading into the 2010 midterm elections.
The Washington Times and other publications have reported on top party donors who are shunning the RNC because of questions about Mr. Steele's stewardship. Several top RNC officials have left in recent weeks, and the party was embarrassed by revelations that the RNC approved an expense to entertain donors at a California sex-themed club.
On Tuesday, Sean Mahoney, an RNC member from New Hampshire, resigned from the party's executive committee while issuing a broadside at Mr. Steele over excessive expenses.
"I don't care if the $2,000 was spent in February at a strip club or a family pizza party," Mr. Mahoney wrote. "That $2,000 could have been spent on radio ads to defeat my congresswoman ... or any number of vulnerable Democrats across the country."
Mr. Steele has his defenders and can point to a string of high-profile races in New Jersey, Virginia and Massachusetts where Republicans scored major victories. There is also little enthusiasm within party ranks for ousting Mr. Steele before his two-year term ends in January.
Prominent party figures, including former New York City Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, have come out in support of the RNC chairman. Mr. Gingrich argued this week that there was no time for internal turmoil in the party as polls suggest Republicans can score major gains - and maybe even capture control of Congress - in the November midterm elections.
"It's foolish for Republicans to focus on Michael Steele as the person," he said on NBC's "Today" show earlier this week. "We ought to focus on defeating Democrats, and we have a real chance to elect [Rep.] John Boehner [of Ohio] as speaker and to elect [Sen.] Mitch McConnell [of Kentucky] as Senate majority leader."
Through the end of February, the RNC reported having raised $120 million with no outstanding debt, compared with a little more than $100 million for the DNC and $3.7 million in debt. But, partly because of the party funds poured into races last year and in the special Senate race in Massachusetts, the RNC has about $11 million to spend going into the heart of the election season, far below the bankroll the party had amassed in previous election cycles.
Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, a widely respected figure in the party and former RNC chairman, also declined to criticize Mr. Steele's job performance. But Mr. Barbour, who heads the Republican Governors Association, acknowledged in an interview on CNN Tuesday that he was prepared if Mr. Steele's group could not provide the traditional financial and logistical support for GOP candidates this campaign season.
"We will be prepared if the fundraising for the RNC doesn't go as well as hoped," Mr. Barbour said. "They've raised a lot of money. Let's don't deny that. But if it doesn't go as well, we're going to have to be prepared to do more."
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