Infighting could hurt Republican chances in midterms, RNC members say

By Rosalind S. Helderman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, August 7, 2010

KANSAS CITY, MO. -- At a closed-door meeting on Thursday, members of the Republican National Committee rose to implore one another to stop dwelling on embarrassing leaks concerning the party and focus solely on winning in November.

Former New Hampshire governor John Sununu, chairman of his state party, shared the pledge that he has made to members in the Granite State: Set aside their disputes for now, win the midterm elections in November and then -- and only then -- "if we want to have a convention to argue among ourselves, we can do that."

"Infighting in a party is a luxury that comes only with a supermajority," Sununu said in an interview after the meeting. "People are so upset about the direction of the country under the Democrats -- everyone realizes we almost have an obligation to make sure we do well in November."

It's not that the Republicans here aren't confident: They feel quite good about their chances of reclaiming the House, and the more optimistic among them think the Senate may be in reach. More generally, they believe Americans are turned off by Democratic policies and are again receptive to their message.

But under that confidence lies the anxiety that comes with high expectations and the deep desire not to somehow blow it. It's not an idle fear. Even as Republicans have claimed a few high-profile victories in the past year, the tenure of party Chairman Michael S. Steele has been most notable for gaffes and missteps.

Among the most recent were a leak of a June letter by Treasurer Randy Pullen reporting that the party has more debt than has been reported and, this week, the leak of an unusual form e-mail circulated by an RNC intern to foreign ambassadors that offered sit-down meetings with Steele.

For those on the front lines in the effort to retake Congress, it can all be a little exasperating.

"Forget this fighting -- just send us money," Nevada committee member Heidi Smith said she told fellow party members, as she tries to help Sharron Angle unseat Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D) back home. "We must be focusing on getting Harry Reid -- and we can get him."

Wearing a red hat emblazoned with "Fire Pelosi," Steele told committee members on Friday that the GOP has undergone a resurgence, in response to anger over government spending, the national health-care law and President Obama's handling of the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

"In less than two years, we have gone from a demoralized super-minority party to a legion of effective citizens who are on the offense and making Democrats sweat," he said.

Steele made only a glancing reference to his troubles. He told committee members that his answer to those who "cornered me and jumped up and down about all kinds of crazy issues" during the three-day conference was that the RNC needed their help to spread the party's message.

Steele told reporters after his speech that the party would not be distracted by disagreements.

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