Steele's recent trips concern some in GOP

By Amy Gardner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 10, 2010

For a man hoping to lead his party to major congressional victories in November, Republican National Committee Chairman Michael S. Steele has packed his travel schedule with some unusual destinations in recent weeks: Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

The itinerary is fueling speculation that Steele is positioning himself to run for a second term as chairman - and concern among some in the GOP that he may be spending time on that effort instead of on the midterm elections.

Steele was narrowly elected chairman by the RNC's 168√ members in January 2009. He won with a large measure of help from the U.S. territories, which, thanks to the structure of the RNC, each carry as much voting clout as any of the 50 states.

So some Republicans see Steele's recent travel as a signal that he is preparing for another run in January - at a time when they would rather see him making fundraising calls and visiting the states whose races could help decide control of the House and Senate.

"Trips to the territories are less defensible in terms of election dynamics than trips around the country," said David Norcross, a former RNC member who has been critical of the committee's fundraising efforts. "If he's not on the phone, he should get on the phone."

Half a dozen RNC members also offered harsh assessments of the chairman's travels and fundraising efforts, but none would speak on the record.

Steele's defenders said it is hard to criticize his performance given that the party is cruising toward a banner day on Nov. 2.

"When we win the Obama [Senate] seat and the governor's mansion, which I think we're going to do here in Illinois, and win the statehouse and pick up three congressional seats, a great deal of credit is going to go to Michael Steele," said Pat Brady, chairman of the Illinois GOP and a longtime Steele supporter. "If Illinois is my barometer, then he's been tremendously successful."

Steele was in Guam on Wednesday and not available for an interview, but he told a reporter this week in Hawaii, where he was campaigning for Republican candidates, that his trip there had "nothing to do" with his winning reelection.

His spokesman, Doug Heye, said the chairman traveled to the territories to raise money for candidates and the RNC. He noted that Steele was in the Caribbean for a "day and a half" and will be in the Pacific for a similarly short stint, returning home Thursday morning.

Heye also pointed out that under Steele, the committee has increased its donor numbers by more than 400,000. On Wednesday, the chairman will launch a 48-state bus tour to energize voters and raise money for congressional elections. And he has led an effort to build the party's largest ground operation ever, featuring 310 "victory centers" in 44 states with more than 300 paid staff members.

But Steele has weathered his share of gaffes and controversies, including lavish spending and, most recently, public statements criticizing military action in Afghanistan.

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