Steele's Focus Turns to Nuts and Bolts

Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele, with Chris Wallace last month on Fox News, is steering clear of television appearances for now.
Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele, with Chris Wallace last month on Fox News, is steering clear of television appearances for now. (Courtesy Of Fox News Channel)
By Perry Bacon Jr.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 15, 2009

Michael S. Steele, the man tapped six weeks ago to run the Republican National Committee, had never been known as a successful manager. He struggled to make money in a private legal consulting firm he founded before entering politics, led few winning races as the head of the Republican parties of Prince George's County and later the state of Maryland, and lost in his attempts to win statewide office on his own.

But now, after a series of comments that have turned Steele into the butt of jokes on late-night comedy shows and a punching bag in his own party, Republicans say the former Maryland lieutenant governor's performance depends more than ever on his mastering the essential duties of a party chairman: raising money, hiring staff members and helping candidates win elections. No major figure in the GOP has yet called for the resignation of the party's first black chairman, but many want him to stay behind the scenes, even though his reputation as a likable and telegenic figure helped win him the job in the first place.

"It's pretty clear after the last election we need to rebuild the Republican house from the ground up, or we have nothing to sell," said Alex Castellanos, a GOP strategist who was a top adviser to former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney's 2008 bid for the White House. "You have to introduce yourself, so he did a lot of press, but right now getting the machine going is more important than selling it. You can't sell a machine that doesn't work."

Brian Ballard, a Florida GOP activist who was a national finance co-chairman for Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) in last year's presidential campaign, said, "I think our fundraising bench is depleted, and I hope he'll work on that."

"It is much more challenging to make sure we're well funded than going against Chris Matthews at 7 o'clock," Ballard added.

After two weeks of public drubbing over comments that included criticism of radio host Rush Limbaugh and a reference to abortion as a matter of "individual choice," Steele is taking steps to address some of the concerns about his early gaffes. He has called a halt to his television appearances and curtailed national media interviews.

Instead, Steele is stepping up his outreach to the 168 members of the Republican National Committee who elected him, sending them frequent e-mail updates during the week and offering his personal cellphone number and e-mail address to members during a recent conference call.

His allies are reaching out to prominent party figures such as Ballard to reassure them that Steele is focused on more than being a TV commentator. And Steele, who announced the hiring of a chief of staff last week, will make additional hires this week.

Curt Anderson, a top Steele adviser, said the chairman is particularly focused on fundraising. He said Steele plans to attend several fundraising events over the next month as he also travels around the country for private meetings with top GOP officials to get their perspectives and ideas on how the party can improve. He said that Steele showed he was an effective fundraiser during his unsuccessful 2006 Senate campaign and that the new chairman was already a popular draw at fundraising events because of his high profile.

Steele's challenge is substantial. He raised $8 million in his 2006 campaign, while the RNC in the last campaign cycle raised $400 million in the midst of President George W. Bush's declining popularity.

"It takes real double-down effort to survive financially if you don't have the White House," Anderson said.

Steele appeared at two fundraisers in Portland, Ore., on Thursday, but he also held a news conference there in the aftermath of his abortion comment, saying, "It may seem like four years, but it's only been 40 days I've been in this job," according to the Oregonian newspaper. He promised an aggressive effort to recruit as candidates "men and women who got game," displaying the kind of slang that has become both his trademark and a target for critics, the Associated Press reported.

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