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Steele's book release, fiery rhetoric fuel dissatisfaction within GOP
"I'm the guy that they're afraid of because, guess what? I'm a Tea Partier, I'm a town haller, I'm a grass-roots-er," Steele said in an interview Thursday with KTRS (550 AM) in St. Louis.
When host McGraw Milhaven asked about criticism from some Republicans that he had become a "detriment" to party fundraising, Steele said: "I am in this chair. If they want it, take it from me. Until then, shut up, step back and get in the game and help us win. . . . I hope you play this tape over and over again because these folks are the problem, not the solution. Get with the program. I'm the chairman. Deal with it."
Even if the dissatisfaction with Steele intensified, forcing him from office would take an extraordinary effort because of complex rules governing the RNC and because of the absence of a consensus candidate ready to take over a party torn between its moderate and conservative wings.
Steele stirred controversy when he told Fox News Channel on Monday that he did not think the GOP would be able to retake their congressional majorities this year. On that show, he also used a term considered derogatory to Native Americans, underscoring a point about his party's agenda with the words: "Honest Injun on that." At least two members of Congress, a Republican and a Democrat, condemned Steele for the remark.
Former House speaker Newt Gingrich (Ga.) came to Steele's defense this week, telling reporters that he is "a fan of Steele's" even though he "makes a number of old-time Republicans very nervous."
Others' frustrations with Steele do not appear to have boiled over to a full revolt, several RNC members said Friday. "There are obviously some people not happy with Chairman Steele right now, but nobody is really talking about trying to remove him," said Chip Saltsman, a former Tennessee Republican Party chairman who ran against Steele for the national chairmanship.
Former South Carolina Republican Party chairman Katon Dawson, who finished second in that race, rejected the notion that a challenge to Steele may be in the offing.
"I don't want to be sour grapes," Dawson said. "I am not a guy who will throw mud."
Removing a party chairman is rare but not unprecedented. Jim Gilmore was forced out in 2002 after feuding with President George W. Bush's chief political strategist, Karl Rove.
In any case, firing Steele would require the votes of two-thirds of the RNC's 168 members, according to party rules. Even his most vocal detractors say that prospect is unlikely. Steele has lavished attention on the low-profile and often-ignored members of the RNC. For instance, Steele is bringing them together in Hawaii this month for the RNC's winter meeting. As a result, GOP strategists said, there is significant goodwill toward him.
Still, RNC members have taken steps to limit Steele's authority. In the spring, the committee voted to require that any spending exceeding $100,000 be approved by the executive committee or the treasurer, who is elected independently from the chairman.
When Steele became chairman last January, the RNC had $22.8 million in the bank. At the end of November, the RNC reported having $8.7 million on hand as it headed into an election year with 37 gubernatorial races and dozens of competitive Senate and House contests.
Although the RNC raised about $84 million over that period, it spent $90 million, according to the party's financial records.
Curt Anderson, an RNC consultant and Steele ally, said criticizing the chairman is distracting the party at a time when Democrats appear vulnerable.
"If the goal is to beat the Democrats, and for me it is, I don't see what all this infighting is accomplishing," Anderson said. "There are a lot of bored Republican folks right now engaged in pettiness. I have no interest in adding to that."
Dawson agreed, saying the only way Republicans can exploit the favorable national climate is if their leaders work together.
"This is a team sport," Dawson said. "You can't win this thing unless you put all the players on the field."
Research editor Alice Crites contributed to this report.