RNC's Steele facing some scrutiny

April 01, 2010|By Kathleen Hennessey | Tribune Newspapers

WASHINGTON — Donors were restless, candidates were wary and critics were piling on Republican National Committee Chairman Michael S. Steele - and that was before this week's revelation that the committee treated a group of young donors to a night out at a West Hollywood lesbian bondage-themed nightclub.

The club debacle spotlights how isolated the RNC has become under Steele's tenure.

No elected officials have called for Steele's resignation, but few have come to the chairman's defense.

Even as Republican hopes of an electoral renaissance are rising heading into the November elections, the RNC remains bogged down by spending questions that threaten to undermine the party's message of fiscal discipline and distract from its efforts to rebuild party infrastructure.

"We have an historic opportunity to win 48, 50, 52 seats in the House this cycle. We can match the Republican Revolution of 1994," said Ken Blackwell, a conservative activist at the Focus on the Family advocacy group who lost to Steele in 2009 in a bid for the chairmanship. "But we can't match that historic feat if we're diverting attention to putting out brush fires on bush-league mistakes."

The RNC moved quickly to try to contain the damage while portraying the nightclub dust-up as an isolated incident. It quickly fired a staffer involved in a decision to reimburse a donor for a nearly $2,000 bill at Voyeur, a club that features performances of sadomasochistic scenes.

"We are dedicated to the efficient use of RNC funds to ensure as many victories in 2010 as possible," RNC Chief of Staff Ken McKay wrote in a memo to committee members released Tuesday.

Such assurances are fighting against a stream of bad headlines. In January, Steele said he didn't think his party could take back the House. In February, he faced scrutiny for hosting a meeting at a Hawaiian resort, a move that appeared to some as out of step with recession-era calls for frugality.

The Voyeur expenditure was first reported on Monday by The Daily Caller Web site, which also noted the RNC spent more than $17,500 on private jet travel in February.

RNC spokesman Doug Heye said the controversies have been overblown and pointed to the committee's significant investments in state parties and key races. Ahead of off-year elections in 2009, the RNC spent $3 million in New Jersey and $9 million in Virginia, Heye said. Both states saw Republicans take the governor's office.

"That's a pretty good track record," said Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell, who came to Steele's defense this week.

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