In a year when the Republican grassroots is emerging as a potent political force, the party leadership under Michael Steele seems to be lost in the wilderness. As the health care takeover, giant deficits, unemployment and a general excess of government drive voters to Tea Party protests and to the voting booths, the Republican National Committee ought to be on the spot to cash in on an unprecedented opportunity. Instead it finds itself mired in controversy, wallowing ineffectively and facing challenges to its authority.
The problems started when a year of successful fundraising, in which Democrats were outstripped particularly among small donors, was more than negated by high overhead and excessive expenses, adding up to a $6 million deficit with little to show for it with the fall primary season still months away. With money frittered away on limousines, expensive hotels and travel junkets, RNC Chairman Michael Steele may be losing the confidence of major donors at the time when he needs them most.
The latest scandal is minor compared to the financial problems plaguing the party, but it has nevertheless received the most attention. The media has had a field day with the story of an RNC staffer authorizing almost $2000 in expenses for one of its fundraising contractors at Voyeur, a Hollywood topless club with a lesbian bondage theme. They may have fired the staffer, but the controversy rages on.
Then, to top things off, the RNC's fundraising efforts have been further called into question as a result of an expensive mailing in which a typo in the response phone number connected potential contributors to a $2.99-a-minute sex line instead of the RNC phone bank. A lot of blue-haired GOP stalwarts were less than amused by the experience.
One result has been muted calls for Michael Steele's resignation as RNC Chairman, kept at a low volume by the heavy atmosphere of invective over race from the left, which raises Steele's value as a prominent African American in the party. It's hard to fire the highest-ranking black man in your party when the opposition is constantly calling you racist.
At the same time other groups within the party are looking at this as an opportunity to expand their influence and fill the fundraising and campaign financing role which would normally be the domain of the RNC. American Crossroads is hoping to take over as the warchest of party insiders while Family Research Council is seeking to take over as the campaign funding arm of the religious right. Meanwhile Tea Party groups and other grassroots organizations are having a lot of success raising money and drumming up support for the large cadre of more libertarian candidates running across the nation.
Despite his considerable charisma and effectiveness as both a fundraiser and a spokesman, Steele's organizational weakness and lack of fiscal discipline have hurt the RNC substantially. It may be going too far to expect him to resign, but if he loses the support of big donors and loses the confidence of the party establishment, he and the RNC run the risk of being rendered irrelevant. Because if they cannot provide the financial backing which candidates need, then much of their real authority as a party leadership goes with it.
As the RNC declines in authority it may create opportunities for other groups, but it also produces chaos and a lack of unity which could cost Republicans the chance to reclaim power in Congress that the policies of the Obama administration have created for them.