By Dan Balz and Chris Cillizza
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 7, 2010; A01
Michael S. Steele appears likely to weather his gaffe about the war in Afghanistan, perhaps his most significant lapse as chairman of the Republican National Committee. But many Republican leaders have lost confidence in his ability to head the GOP and are working around him to keep it on track for the midterm elections.
Some Republican strategists say privately that Steele's troubles have weakened the party in an all-important election year. House Minority Leader John A. Boehner (Ohio) recently said he worries that fundraising problems at the RNC could hamper Republicans' efforts to take over the House in November, as major donors express reluctance to contribute to the organization under Steele. One House Republican, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the consequences of Steele's leadership candidly, said the party will do well in November because of the general political climate. But, he added, "we are going to be in a position to lose seats that we could win."
State parties are bracing for a possible deficit in resources from the national committee, which would make it difficult to fully fund get-out-the-vote operations. "Hopefully a lot of the local parties are picking up what is perceived to be a shortfall in funds," said Saul Anuzis, an RNC member from Michigan.
One GOP strategist said fundraisers and donors lack confidence in the organization's ability to manage its resources. "They want to invest their money to win seats. They don't trust this guy [Steele] to invest their money wisely. . . . They just don't think the RNC is a smart place to invest their money right now."
As a result, other Republican Party committees and outside groups have stepped in to take up the RNC's slack and are trying to steer reluctant donors toward them.
Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, chairman of the Republican Governors Association, has turned his operation into a fundraising powerhouse in part through the help of major donors who had been longtime backers of the RNC. Last week, the committee reported raising a record $19 million in the second quarter of the year. The RGA said it has raised almost twice as much in the first half of this year as in any comparable period in the past. GOP strategists said Barbour has benefited from his longtime connections to major GOP fundraisers and from the turbulence at the RNC.
As Steele's perceived effectiveness as a party leader has diminished, Barbour, a former RNC chairman, has positioned himself as one of the party's leading spokesmen.
Other GOP operations have also taken advantage of the RNC's difficulties. This weekend, the National Republican Senatorial Committee will hold a fundraiser in Maine. The sponsors include a who's who of RNC finance chairmen and major fundraisers from the past, according to the invitation, which was first published by Politico. "After much deliberation," they said, "we have decided our focus should be on making gains in the United States Senate. . . . We have decided to get together to help the NRSC."
Earlier, former party chairman Ed Gillespie and former White House senior adviser Karl Rove established American Crossroads, a "527" group whose goal is to raise $50 million to help fund Republican candidates. The group reported last week that it raised more than $8 million in June.
Another example is a joint venture by the RNC, the senatorial committee and the National Republican Congressional Committee. According to one RNC member, the two other committees demanded that all money in the fund be used only for House and Senate candidates. One official said the RNC balked at the terms, but RNC spokesman Doug Heye said, "There was no resistance."
Heye took issue with criticism of the RNC under Steele, noting that the organization has raised more than the Democratic National Committee in 10 of the 18 months of this election cycle.
He conceded that there has been a falloff in donations but said: "We've got a few challenges. One is an economy that makes it difficult for a lot of major donor giving. Two, for the first time in 16 years we don't have the White House, the House or the Senate or any combination of that. And we're not able to take soft money."
Heye also confirmed that the national committee has revised down its budget for political operations this fall, which could affect GOP efforts to mobilize voters in November. But he said budget revisions have been commonplace at the RNC in some past years.
Steele spent the Fourth of July weekend reaching out to leading Republicans in an effort to clean up from his comment last week that the conflict in Afghanistan is "a war of Obama's choosing" and not one the United States "had actively prosecuted or wanted to engage in."
The comments created the biggest crisis of Steele's mistake-plagued tenure as chairman. Two prominent GOP senators, John McCain (Ariz.) and Lindsey O. Graham (S.C.), condemned the remarks but stopped short of calling for his resignation. However, the Weekly Standard's William Kristol and Liz Cheney, the daughter of former vice president Richard B. Cheney, said Steele should step down.
Party officials said Tuesday that there is little prospect of a change at the top of the RNC for now, in part because of the disruption that forcing Steele out would create four months before the midterm elections.
"Right now, Republicans all need to focus on the critical elections our country faces this November, not on who holds what title in the party structure," said Katon Dawson, a former GOP chairman in South Carolina who had sought the chairmanship that Steele won.
Steele's only reaction to the controversy came in a written statement issued last Friday in which he said he supports the war in Afghanistan. He has made no public comment and canceled an appearance at the Aspen Ideas Festival later this week.
Dawson predicted that Steele will survive through November but also said he "will go down as one of the most controversial chairs" in the history of the party. He said Steele has become a distraction "not only in the message arena, but in the on-the-ground fundraising" that has been important to the party's success in mobilizing voters.
Whether Steele can win another term as chairman is more doubtful, according to Republicans on and off the national committee. He has worked skillfully to maintain support of RNC members through extensive travel to states and territories. But committee members and party strategists said there is a difference in the way committee members, even those who backed Steele for chairman, now talk about his leadership and his future. Said one former RNC official, "I do think it's made it harder for him to stand for reelection in January."