WASHINGTON – Amid growing concern over Michael Steele's stewardship of the Republican National Committee, a New Hampshire activist resigned his seat Tuesday, citing an "out-of-touch, free-spending culture of Washington" within the party.
Meanwhile, a finance report that showed the RNC spent $982 at a Vermont winery for what it called "office supplies" — five cases of wine — was unlikely to calm the fretting.
Committeeman Sean Mahoney, a New Hampshire businessman who is mulling a run for Congress in November, joined the chorus of criticism from activists and donors over lavish spending by the RNC. Mahoney was the latest person to cut ties with the committee; Steele's top aide and one of his top outside advisers ended relationships with the committee Monday.
Republican officials said it was unlikely Steele would depart the committee, and Steele himself vowed to remain. Even so, revelations of an almost $2,000 tab at a sex-themed California night club and almost $1,000 at a winery did little to help his standing among the party activists who are optimistic about GOP chances in midterm elections and down on Steele's public profile.
"Not only has the out-of-touch, free-spending culture of Washington come to completely dominate the United States Congress, but I have watched with growing unease as the same mentality has seeped into our own national party," Mahoney wrote in a letter.
RNC spokeswoman Katie Wright thanked Mahoney for his services and gently disputed his claims.
"Many Americans across the country are concerned with the binge-spending, big-government agenda coming out of Washington and the RNC is committed to ensuring that every donor dollar goes to building the infrastructure needed to elect conservative candidates that believe in the fundamental principles of our party," Wright said in a statement.
Separately, Republicans said they had expected Mahoney to resign from the committee ahead of a potential campaign for office. Routine financial reports showing the questionable spending by the RNC hastened that; his opponents easily could link Mahoney to the RNC's spending patterns.
Mahoney said he had not made a decision whether to again seek office, but he planned to attend tea party events next week for Tax Day protests.
"There's a sense of arrogance that folks in Washington know best how to spend people's money," Mahoney said in an interview. "I hope this come as a wake-up call that they've got to get their shop in order. Hopefully, they'll take these messages to heart and focus on what they should be doing: winning elections for Republicans in November."
Meanwhile, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich called on fellow Republicans to stop criticizing Steele and focus instead on defeating Democrats this fall.
Gingrich, who figures prominently in speculation about the 2012 presidential race, said on NBC's "Today" show that Steele is "capable of taking us through the midterm elections." But he also suggested that the embattled party chairman appoint an outsider to bring the party's finances under control.
GOP officials did not explain the $981 expenditures at Boyden Valley Winery of Cambridge, Vt., for what it labeled "office supplies."
David Boyden, who operates the rural winery with his wife, Linda, said he had no idea when someone from the RNC ordered five cases of wine in December that his business would face a wave of notoriety four months later. The northern Vermont business specializes in ice wines.
"I'm a little annoyed that I'm tied to such an article," Boyden said in a phone interview.
Asked if he sold office supplies — as the spending was called in Federal Election Commission reports — Boyden was clear: "No. That's a big no."
It was the latest nugget the RNC's critics cited in a report that included the embarrassing outing at a sex-themed club.
Steele was not present at West Hollywood's Voyeur night club on Jan. 31 when a group of young Republicans ran a tab picked up by the RNC. After reporters noted the bill in a funding report, the RNC fired a staffer it blamed for the outing and said it would be reimbursed by a donor who had attended.
That wasn't enough to stop the wave of criticisms.
Steele wrote a memo to RNC aides on Monday to announce chief of staff Ken McKay's resignation, to say he recognized the problems — "the buck stops with me" — and to promise more changes ahead.
"Every minute spent on distractions is an unacceptable missed opportunity to do what you do best — taking back our country for the American people," Steele wrote.
McKay's resignation prompted one of Steele's top advisers, Curt Anderson, to leave the committee's circle of consultants. As one of Steele's closets advisers, Anderson helped Steele make many of the party's decisions.
Associated Press writers Sharon Theimer in Washington and David Gram in Montpelier, Vt., contributed to this report.