Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele must answer to GOP donors angry that the committee paid a $1,946 RNC tab at a bondage-themed stripper club, at the same time he faces a growing insurgency seeking to remove him.
Mark DeMoss, founder of The DeMoss Group public relations firm in Atlanta, who served as Christian-community liaison for former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney's 2008 campaign, is one major GOP donor who already has announced he will no longer be writing checks to the RNC.
"How does the Republican Party, with credibility today, attack the Democrats and President Obama for reckless spending of taxpayer money, when we're apparently guilty of reckless spending of our own donors' money?" DeMoss asks Newsmax. "I think we've squandered any kind of moral authority on an economic principle that used to be fundamental to the Republican Party."
Editor's Note: Read the Newsmax exclusive, "Michael Steele Has Lost the Support of His Party."
RNC officials say Steele was aboard a jetliner returning from the GOP's winter meeting in Hawaii when the tab at the Voyeur club in West Hollywood, Calif., was rung up. The RNC has acknowledged reimbursing the cost of the exotic club, incurred after an official RNC event in Los Angeles involving up-and-coming "Young Eagle" donors, according to the Los Angeles Times, .
RNC officials say the expense was unauthorized, inappropriate, and not a part of any RNC-sanctioned event. The item slipped through the normal accounting-review process, the RNC says, adding that the staffer who submitted the expense for reimbursement has been fired.
Newsmax contacted the RNC for comment Tuesday afternoon. There was no immediate response.
The backlash over what has been dubbed "strippergate" in the blogosphere is just the latest controversy to hit the organization. In February, reports emerged that the RNC spent $17,500 on private-jet travel, $15,000 on limousines, and more than $30,000 on five-star hotels.
"That's what's disconcerting to me about seeing these limousine bills and chartered jet bills and hotel bills," DeMoss tells Newsmax. "It suggests that we don't have any more restraint than those we often attack or criticize for spending. Families had to cut back, businesses cut back, and then you read that our Republican National Committee apparently didn't cut back on anything. It's a double standard, it's irresponsible."
The RNC had $22 million in cash on hand when Steele assumed the chairmanship in January 2009. As of this month, those reserves had dwindled to $9.46 million.
A series of gaffes and other controversies have hamstrung Steele almost from the beginning of his tenure. Yet he has weathered previous GOP uprisings. Now, his longevity may depend on how many other well-heeled GOP donors share DeMoss' frustration.
"It will be interesting to see if this controversy puts the anti-Steele forces over the top," University of Virginia political science expert Larry J. Sabato tells Newsmax. "It isn’t easy to remove a chairman in mid-term."
In fact, two-thirds of the 168 RNC members would have to vote for a change — a formidable hurdle. But the 168-member committee will elect a new chairman, or re-elect Steele, in January. Sabato views Steele's chances of serving another term as dim.
"If Steele’s resignation happens, whether forced or not, then the RNC will elect a new one," Sabato tells Newsmax. "And Steele is unlikely to be re-elected if he lasts out this term, so a new chairman is likely."
Two candidates often mentioned as possible successors are former South Carolina Republican Party Chairman Katon Dawson and former Ohio Secretary of State Kenneth Blackwell. Both were strong contenders for the post before GOP insiders gave Steele the nod.
It has becoming increasingly clear that a contingent within the GOP has turned against Steele's leadership. As recently as January, Dawson had to deny that a coup was under way to have Steele removed. Steele reportedly continues to enjoy solid support from the GOP rank-and-file. One of his big defenders has been former House Speaker Newt Gingrich. In January, Gingrich came to Steele's defense with the media.
"Michael Steele makes a number of old-time Republicans very nervous," Gingrich said. "He comes out of a different background. He went to seminary ... he's African-American ... But I think he's pretty close to what we need. He's different, he's gutsy and he's going to make a number of Republicans mad."
The Voyeur scandal arose just a few weeks after Steele had to distance himself from a GOP PowerPoint presentation revealed by Politico. In that presentation, delivered at a GOP retreat held in Boca Grande, Fla., in February, GOP officials discussed using "fear" to motivate "ego-driven" donors to write checks.
The presentation included images portraying President Obama as the Joker from Batman, and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi as Cruella DeVille.
That presentation prompted DeMoss, a champion of civil political dialog, to fire off a letter to Steele informing him that he no longer would contribute to Republican fund-raising entities. He said he will continue to donate to individual candidates, however.
Blackwell says an RNC "insurgency" faction is resisting Steele's leadership. "In Hawaii they aired their grievances and circled the wagons," he says.
He tells Newsmax that, since news of the Voyeur scandal broke, he has been contacted "by folks who are inside the RNC and outside the RNC" assessing his interest in becoming the next RNC chairman.
Blackwell has been outspoken in calling for greater RNC transparency and accountability. He tells Newsmax that RNC leadership issues have reached "crisis proportions" because "it is diverting our attention and making fuzzy our focus at a time when the Obama administration and their power grab is most intense, and in critical need of a coordinated and concerted response by the Republican Party."
Says Blackwell: "Every day and minute we spend talking about strip clubs and wild spending habits, it's a day that we're not working on changing the course that we're on as a country by changing the makeup of Congress."
Despite the urgency of the looming midterm elections, however, Blackwell says he doesn't believe Steele is likely to be removed.
"There have been several folks who have contacted me and I've been pretty straightforward that look, that is not going to happen," Blackwell says. "The leadership is decided every two years, and no matter how disappointing the performance of an incumbent — unless it's during a period when the president sort of handpicks the leadership of the RNC — I don't see the RNC replacing this chairman, or any chairman, that they have selected in between elections."
Congressional Republicans, including the National Republican Campaign Committee, led by Texas Rep. Pete Sessions, and the National Republican Senatorial Committee, led by Texas Sen. John Cornyn, may be asked to take more prominent roles representing the GOP.
"We have a multi-faced party," Blackwell tells Newsmax. "In that regard they're going to work to make sure that not one personality is totally representative of the quality of the leadership."
Perhaps coincidentally, on Tuesday afternoon, Cornyn sent out a fundraising e-mail to GOP supporters that stated: "We are less than 48 hours until our crucial end-of-the-quarter deadline, and while our candidates are out there working hard to earn your vote, they will need your help to be successful in pushing back against everything the Democrats will throw at them."
DeMoss adds that he is not calling for Steele to step down.
"The party has a mechanism for electing and overseeing its chairman and officers, and I'm content to let that play out how it plays out," he says. "However, he's entitled to manage the party however he wants. All I've said is he's not going to manage it with my money. And I think when you're dependent on donors for your very existence, there's a very high level of accountability that's incumbent with that."
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