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Lesser of two evils: Keeping Steele as RNC chair

By Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 7, 2010; 1:00 PM

Absent a truly devastating new revelation, Republican National Committee Chairman Michael S. Steele appears in no imminent danger of losing his job. But after another week of controversy over his leadership, the chairman's longer-term prospects look far less secure.

For several reasons, Steele is a good bet to remain in his post until his two-year term expires in January.

First, replacing a sitting chairman before his or her term expires isn't easy. National party committees, for all the grandness of their name, are more like small clubs -- often impervious to outside opinions. And it takes a two-thirds majority of the RNC's 168 voting members to dump a chairman.

Like his predecessors, Steele has cultivated that membership and has a core of loyalists who will protect him. Nobody believes the votes are there today to get rid of Steele.

The second reason Steele appears secure is that ousting him seven months before an important midterm election would be massively disruptive to the operations of the committee and harmful to the party. Republicans believe it is far easier to work around an embarrassing chairman and a weak national committee than to blow up the organization at this point.

Still, Steele's travails appear to have reached a tipping point. Conversations the past few days with Republicans suggest that whatever confidence remained in Steele's capacity to be an effective chairman has eroded significantly. "It's tipped over his ability to be relevant and helpful," said Scott Reed, a former chief of staff at the RNC and Bob Dole's 1996 presidential campaign manager.

The uproar over expenses paid at a California strip club was bad enough, as it drew more attention to the sloppy management of the committee, especially the finance operation. Then there was Steele's clumsy use of race as a shield against criticism and his effort to equate himself, in that regard, with President Obama. That appalled many Republicans.

The ouster of Ken McKay, the RNC's well-regarded chief of staff, was seen by many as an attempt by Steele to protect himself at the expense of the committee. His departure prompted Curt Anderson, a veteran Republican strategist who has been part of Steele's inner circle, to sever his connections to the committee. All that follows several other high-level departures that have left the committee weaker.

It is possible to overstate the consequences of an embarrassing chairman and a weak national committee operation. The reality is that others can take up some of the slack. The National Republican Senatorial Committee and the National Republican Campaign Committee can step in, particularly in a midterm election.

The Republican Governors Association under Mississippi's Haley Barbour has become a fundraising powerhouse. Barbour, a former RNC chairman, will be looked to increasingly for strategic guidance and to speak for the party

But there are costs. One is that every day Steele is in the news is a day Republicans are not making their case against the Democrats. "It is critical as we approach November that we stay on the messages that distinguish us from the Democrats and not get caught in a series of discussions that don't make sharp those distinctions," said Tom Rath, a former RNC member.

A former top official at the committee said the focus on Steele's management "reinforces a negative stereotype" about whether Republicans are capable of governing and managing. That hurt the party badly in 2006 and some Republicans fear it could again. A current member of the committee complained, "This goes back to harbingers of Katrina, mismanagement and all that stuff."

Others say Steele's problems will dampen contributions, particularly from big donors. RNC officials reported Wednesday morning that the committee had raised $11.4 million in March, said to be a record for that month in a midterm cycle; the Democratic National Committee raised even more.

What worries Republicans most is that Steele's committee has spent so much money that there will be less available this fall to put into targeted races and late-breaking opportunities. Voter mobilization efforts also could be hampered by lack of money unless others fill the gaps.

But whatever problems Steele causes don't significantly alter the fundamentals of the election year: Republican voters appear to be more motivated than Democrats, and Obama's approval ratings are sluggish enough to put Democrats broadly at risk in November.

In that way, Steele has been a lucky chairman. Despite all his problems, he has been able to point to victories in New Jersey, Virginia and Massachusetts that have occurred during his tenure and claim some of the credit. But the goodwill afforded him is now largely gone.

"What has turned around is there is definitely a feeling that whatever good news happens in November it's despite the chairman not because of him," said one Republican on the committee. "That's the big, not-so-subtle change, that's taken root."

That's why Steele's prospects for another term as chairman look more difficult. Would anyone now thinking of seeking the Republican presidential nomination want to count on Steele to do all the necessary preparatory work at the national committee for the 2012 election? Not likely. Nor would they want a chairman who seems constitutionally incapable of keeping himself out of the limelight.

But those prospective candidates--and everyone else associated with the party--are at the mercy of the national committee members, who early next year will have to face the question of whether Steele deserves another term at the helm.

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