Despite Gaffes, Steele Boasts Backers

Friday, 15 Jan 2010 08:07 AM

By Liz Sidoti

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Despite a series of missteps that have drawn criticism in Washington, GOP Chairman Michael Steele still enjoys the support of many state party chiefs, grass-roots activists and, most importantly, Republican National Committee members who hired - and can fire - him.

From California to Maine and Florida, local Republican leaders praise Mr. Steele as a visible spokesman toeing the conservative line for a party lacking the bully pulpits of the White House and majority leadership in Congress. They forgive his frequent verbal blunders.

Mr. Steele is cheered for raising more than $80 million last year; that there's only $8 million left in the RNC account is ignored by some party leaders outside Washington. He's also credited with helping engineer Republican victories in the Virginia and New Jersey gubernatorial races, even though a GOP-friendly political landscape contributed heavily to the wins.

"Has he done a perfect job? Well, no. But overall, he's done a very good job," said Colorado GOP chief Dick Wadhams, who didn't back Mr. Steele for chairman.

Bill Crocker, a Texas committeeman who also opposed Mr. Steele, focused on the upside of what he called a mixed record. "If he loses, we all lose, so I'm going to support him to the fullest extent that I'm able."

And, echoing many others, former Nevada Gov. Bob List, a newly elected committeeman, said, "I don't have anything negative to say about his performance as chairman at all."

Interviews with nearly two dozen Republicans across the country found that local party leaders and members of the 168-person RNC - which, a year ago, chose Mr. Steele for a two-year term - still back him wholeheartedly or are giving him the benefit of the doubt, withholding judgment until after the 2010 elections.

They largely look past the gaffes that have enraged longtime establishment Republicans and GOP elders in Washington, who fear Mr. Steele is damaging the party's image and its long-term fiscal health.

"The chairman still will be judged on the basis of how much money did he raise and how many candidates did he elect," Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican, told reporters this week.

Most recently, Mr. Steele angered Capitol Hill leaders by predicting the GOP won't win House control this fall. He also drew their ire when he criticized fellow Republicans in a book that GOP leaders didn't know he was writing until it was published.

His GOP critics were irked further when he told them to "get a life" and "shut up." Mr. Steele also is drawing fire over how he spends the party's money, such as giving $20,000 to the GOP in the Northern Mariana Islands, and for collecting payment for his speeches.

A handful of critics within the RNC are considering taking steps at the committee's winter gathering in Hawaii later this month to go on the record demanding that Mr. Steele cancel his book tour and direct him to donate his earnings to the party.

Mindful of such backlash, Mr. Steele sounded contrite in an interview this week with the Associated Press. He said the RNC has "turned some important corners" but expressed disappointment with himself for causing difficulty for the party with his words and deeds.

"It's not about me. It should never be about me as chairman. It should be about the party ... and what the party is doing on behalf of our elected officials and our activists," Mr. Steele said.

His plan for his second year: "We want to keep the eye on the prize, which is winning elections around the country and fighting for these principles we believe in."

Rick Beltram, a former Spartanburg County GOP chairman in South Carolina, credits Mr. Steele with starting to rehabilitate the party's image and mission. "What we are, who we are and how we're going to go sell it, that's all in focus now," Mr. Beltram said.

Still, some of Mr. Steele's deeds and words give others pause.

"We haven't gone as much in the direction that I'd like to see us go," said Gary Jones, Oklahoma's GOP chairman. But Mr. Jones said he wouldn't go so far as to seek Mr. Steele's removal.

Some critics claim Mr. Steele is trying to position himself for a presidential run.

"Oh no! My God, no!" Mr. Steele responded. He called such talk "silly inside-the-Beltway craziness."

© Copyright 2014 The Washington Times, LLC

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