By Philip Rucker and Chris Cillizza
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 6, 2010; A01
The Republican National Committee's chief of staff resigned under pressure Monday, which Chairman Michael S. Steele described as an effort to reassure wavering donors in the wake of a controversy over its most recent expense accounting.
The resignation of Ken McKay, Steele's highest-ranking aide, is the most drastic in a series of attempts at damage control by the RNC after it was revealed March 29 that the committee had spent $1,900 to entertain young donors at a risqué West Hollywood nightclub. The staff member who authorized the expenditure was fired last week, and the RNC has implemented new spending accountability procedures.
"The members of the Republican National Committee entrusted myself and every staffer to lead the loyal opposition against the destructive Obama agenda, build a stronger Republican Party and win elections," Steele said in a statement. "This is a role I take with the utmost seriousness. With this in mind, I want to do everything in my power to ensure that the committee uses all its resources in the best possible fashion."
But in a blow to Steele, the political consulting firm that had long aided his political career and was advising him at the RNC said Monday night that it had severed ties with the national party after McKay's ouster.
"Given our firm's commitments to campaigns all over the country, we have concluded it is best for us to step away from our advisory role at the RNC," said Curt Anderson, a partner at On Message. "We have high personal regard for the chairman and always have. We wish him well."
RNC officials have worked to distance Steele from the nightclub story, insisting not only that was he not at the club but also that he had no knowledge of the expenditure. McKay, whom Steele hired, will be replaced by Deputy Chief of Staff Mike Leavitt, a Steele loyalist and longtime party operative who ran Steele's unsuccessful Senate campaign in Maryland in 2006 and worked at the RNC with Robert F. McDonnell's winning Virginia gubernatorial campaign last year.
Some leading Republican strategists said the turnover will not be enough to quell the growing concerns among GOP donors and establishment figures about Steele's leadership and his record of spending. Ed Rogers, a prominent party strategist, said it is "absolutely not" enough to calm donors, and he suggested that problems with "sloppy management" at the RNC cannot be solved unless Steele leaves.
"This is a terrible way to deal with the cleanup of the mismanagement," Rogers said. "There's no single gesture or single slaughter or sacrifice that will fix that problem. That problem, for the rest of his tenure, will be managed, not solved."
The only people who can remove Steele, however, are the 168 committee members who elected him. It would require a two-thirds majority vote to remove the chairman, whose two-year term expires in January. No committee member has issued a public call for Steele's resignation.
Most of the members are volunteer party activists who live outside the Beltway and are largely engrossed in primary elections and local matters in their states. Unlike Republican strategists in Washington or the party's congressional leaders, RNC members are less in tune with the details or scope of the evolving controversies -- the string of gaffes, confrontations with congressional leaders and record of lavish spending -- that have enveloped Steele's tenure.
"I'm just focused on winning here in South Carolina," said Glenn McCall, an RNC member from that state. "We have our gubernatorial races, lieutenant governor and all of our constitutional offices, Senator [Jim] DeMint's reelection."
McCall acknowledged that he has not closely followed the news of the nightclub expenditure. "I just want Steele and the RNC to continue focusing on winning," he said.
Some of the Republican Party's biggest donors have sidestepped the RNC in recent months, giving money instead to the Republican Governors Association, the National Republican Senatorial Committee and the National Republican Congressional Committee, party strategists said. That movement appears to have increased since the nightclub expenditure was revealed.
Meanwhile, Mike Duncan, a former RNC chairman, helped found American Crossroads, a group independent of the RNC. Aided by informal advice from two Republican political strategists, Karl Rove and Ed Gillespie, the group seeks to raise more than $50 million to help candidates in November's midterm elections.
Katon Dawson, a top operative from South Carolina who finished second to Steele in the chairman's race last year, said that McKay's resignation will be merely "a name in an article, a blip," and that bigger changes may be necessary. "The responsibility falls on the CEO of any organization, whether it be General Electric or whether it be the RNC," Dawson said. "The RNC right now is under Michael Steele. If [McKay is] fired, the question is whether the fault lies there."
Steele refrained from making any public comments last week, but his first interview since the scandal surfaced stoked a new controversy Monday.
Asked by George Stephanopoulos on ABC's "Good Morning America" whether being an African American gave him a "slimmer margin of error" than a white chairman might have, Steele said: "The honest answer is yes. It just is. Barack Obama has a slimmer margin. We all -- a lot of folks do. It's a different role for me to play and others to play, and that's just the reality of it. But you take that as part of the nature of it."
Steele added: "I'm not a Washington insider. . . . My view on politics is much more grass-roots-oriented, it's not old-boy-network-oriented, so I tend to, you know, come at it a little bit stronger, a little bit more streetwise, if you will. That's rubbed some feathers the wrong way."
Steele's comments drew allegations that he was playing the "race card." Conservative political commentator Armstrong Williams, who is black, said Steele's race has "nothing to do" with the scrutiny he is facing.
"It's an inability to think before he speaks and a mistaken Obama complex," Williams said. "He thinks he is in competition with the president. What he needs to do is stay behind the scenes, raise money and get people elected. His race has nothing to do with it."
McCall, who also is black, agreed. "He's the chairman," he said. "It's not about race. . . . He's the man in charge."
White House press secretary Robert Gibbs, who is white, called Steele's comments "silly," adding: "I think Michael Steele's problem isn't the race card. It's the credit card."
Staff writer Krissah Thompson contributed to this report.