WASHINGTON – In the most favorable political environment for Republicans in decades, GOP chairman Michael Steele ordinarily might be lavished with praise for leading his party to the brink of a historic triumph.
Instead, he heads an organization that trails Democrats by $15 million in fundraising, is in debt and largely has been overshadowed by third-party groups that, in a few months, have raised almost as much as Republican National Committee has since January 2009.
Frustration with the chairman is evident in some states.
In Ohio, where the governor's race is in doubt and Republicans are challenging some Democratic House members, party chairman Kevin DeWine recently wrote Steele that the $566,900 the RNC had transferred to date "simply pales in comparison" with 2004, 2006 and 2008.
DeWine begged Steele on Oct. 11 for the full amount of $1 million-plus and then another "emergency appeal" of a million on top of that. The RNC this past week sent $284,400 to Ohio as part of a round of $2.8 million to states.
Steele's gaffes and missteps have clouded his nearly two-year tenure. In the past few weeks, he has been content to steer clear of the nation's capital, making a 48-state tour to help GOP candidates. He was in New Hampshire on Friday and joined Sarah Palin at a Florida rally Saturday, where he praised tea party supporters as a group that "restored our faith in the Constitution."
If Republicans make major gains on Nov. 2, Steele certainly would claim part of the credit as he considers whether to seek another term at chairman.
"Whether or not I run for a second term has nothing to do with winning on Nov. 2, it has absolutely nothing to do with that," Steele told The Associated Press in an interview Friday in Concord, N.H.
The RNC has raised more than $79 million this year and has spent all of it — and then some. The RNC ended September with about $3.4 million in cash on hand and $4.6 million in debt. The RNC also took out a $2.5 million loan in September.
Steele had started the job with a $23 million surplus. That money is long gone
Still, he may receive favorable reviews from the 168-member central party, in part because of his spending. Steele has doled out cash to some state parties. He's paid the salaries of more than 350 operatives beyond Washington. He's sent money to places that typically don't benefit from the party's donors, such as Democratic-leaning Illinois. That has left Steele with plenty of good will from state leaders.
"It's days to the election. Of course the vast majority of funds have been spent," said California Republican Party Chairman Ron Nehring, who has 10 staffers on the RNC's dime. "And I think we're on the verge of a fantastic national victory."
But operatives in Washington are frustrated that Steele has spent so much time on the bus tour rather than focusing on the committee's finances. The role of party chairman typically is behind the scenes coaxing millions.
"I've learned how to multitask in this job," Steele said. "You can continue to raise money. There's a little thing called a cell phone, so I can call a donor while I'm on the bus."
Steele's early actions made him toxic to some donors.
One national committeeman resigned in disgust over the lavish spending and inadequate financial oversight, including a donor party at a lesbian bondage club in West Hollywood, Calif. That outing at the Voyeur nightclub, which Steele did not join, forced the ouster of Steele's chief of staff, chief consultant, finance director, deputy finance director and liaison to young Republicans.
Donors dismayed with Steele's stewardship gave to groups such as American Crossroads and Crossroads GPS, a political committee and affiliate led by veterans of President George W. Bush's campaigns, or the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. American Crossroads has spent a combined $27.7 million; the Chamber $23.7 million so far.
"The party committees, they're hurting. The RNC has done terribly," said Chris Maiorana, a strategist who worked on Republicans Senate efforts. "It's not through lack of effort or smarts that they are running into problems."
Maiorana said the energy among activists is for House and Senate candidates, not the party leaders who work out of a massive headquarters on Capitol Hill.
RNC officials insist they welcome the outside efforts and explain the groups' spending on ads has allowed the central party to focus on its get-out-the-vote operation.
Few Republicans have rushed to oust Steele, the party's first African-American chairman, or begin a public campaign to challenge him when he faces the committee at a yet-unscheduled meeting next year.
Steele's situation is comparable to former Democratic National Committee chairman Howard Dean, whose 50-state strategy and largesse won him scores of friends in state parties but angered Washington Democrats.
Associated Press writers Jim Kuhnhenn in Washington, Holly Ramer in Concord, N.H., and Mike Schneider in Orlando, Fla., contributed to this report.