Steele Fires Back, Responds To Critics

Michael Steele surprised the chattering class of Washington, D.C., by announcing his plans to run for re-election as RNC chairman. Surely, he would resign and move on, right? After all, the Beltway “insiders” tell us that, under Steele’s leadership, the GOP’s donor base withered away; that the prized 72-hour “get-out-the-vote” program was underfunded and ineffective, and that he’s wastefully blown through hundreds of thousands of dollars on a national convention that is still a year-and-a-half away.

Word on the block is, “anybody but Steele.”

But there are always two sides to every story—especially in the Nation’s Capital, where political knives seem to be sharpest amongst “friends.”  Michael Steele is, in fact, not resigning, and in an exclusive interview with HUMAN EVENTS, fires back at his critics, point by point.

Overall, Steele gives his performance in the last two years a “solid B,” and says he’s running for re-election because he’s “not one to quit half-way.”  While acknowledging that he has “stumbled along the way,” Steele believes he was unduly targeted by Republican apparatchiks from day one. “[T]he moment I assumed the gavel of the Republican National Committee, I was under the scrutiny and the attack, in some cases, of people who lost, people who supported individuals who lost, and the establishment as a whole,” he told us.

Steele argued that he was given a mandate from committee members to breakup the RNC’s penchant for “cliques” and “clannishness,” which didn’t win him many friends from those trying to keep the “old guard system” in place.

His urban style is also unique to conservative politics, which may have been a reason some conventional Republicans were turned off by him.

But Steele’s detractors identify the way he’s handled the RNC’s finances as the primary reason he should not seek a second term. We asked Steele to respond to the principal objections launched against his chairmanship.

With the first debate on who should be the next chairman happening this afternoon, watch and read Steele in his own words defend his record.

Criticism #1:  Allowed the RNC’s donor base to wilt and that specifically, under his leadership, the GOP has pulled in far less money in this non-presidential cycle than was raised in 2002 and 2006.

Steele calls this claim “the great myth that’s been perpetrated.”  He notes that he raised $179 million, which was 37% more than what the Democratic National Committee accumulated in 2006 when they were in a similar political position—not holding Congress or the White House. Moreover, Steele said that by using 2002 fundraising numbers as a baseline—as many of his opponents have done—a straw man is set up.  “In 2002, the President and the party could take corporate [soft money] and it could take [contributions] up to $250,000—those were some of our donor levels.  Today an individual can only give us $30,000, and we can’t take any corporate money.”

“Our average donation was $39.98.  Raise $179 million in $39 increments,” Steele boasts.

What about the charge that the GOP’s donor base has become emaciated?  Hogwash, says Steele. “We added over a million new donors to the RNC since I became chairman in February 2009,” highlighting the fact that 683,000 of those new donors were generated in this year alone.

“That has allowed us not only to raise money, but to raise voter contacts and get those donors engaged as activists as well.”

Steele’s even more upbeat about his fundraising efforts because he says that they came at a time when high-profile Republican leaders urged donors to quit giving to the RNC and instead channel their money to conservative 527s, such as American Crossroads.

“We’ve done exceedingly well given the obstacles that been placed in front of the Institution by those who don’t want us to be successful for some reason, telling major donors—and I can list all the names of the major donors that I’ve talked to—‘well, so and so said not to give, I didn’t know why, but they said not to give.’ ”

Criticism #2: Underfunded the GOP’s prized 72-hour “get-out-the-vote” initiative.

“We didn’t underfund the 72-hour program, we just didn’t fund people going to places as they had in the past.”  Steele said that before he took office, the 72-hour program obligated the RNC to pay for flights and hotels and give per diems to all congressional staffers who assisted with the ground game in the lead-up to an election. To him, and state party chairmen he consulted, the funds were being spent inefficiently, going to pay for Hill staffers when they had hordes of volunteers working for free.

“We had over 200,000 volunteers on the ground for our 72-hour program, and I don’t think I need to pay someone when I’ve got 200,000 people volunteering.  That’s what conservatives do, right?  That’s how we save money.”

As a substitute, Steele says he turned the RNC into a “victory center” where Hill staffers could walk across the street to the RNC’s headquarters and volunteer their time by making phone calls for targeted campaigns.  

Criticism #3: Superfluous spending on the national convention

The Republican national convention, to be held in Florida, is still a year-and-a-half away, and already the GOP has spent more than $600,000 on it. A bit much? No, said Steele. He points out that the bulk of that money ($370,000) went toward the “site-selection process.”  That included travel to the different states and locations which were competing for the GOP convention. “So, it paid for [committee members’] travel and it paid for the events that were involved on the ground during that site-selection process,” Steele said in justifying the number.

Moreover, Steele says that legal fees and hotel contracts sucked up another $218,000. The rest, a substantially smaller amount, went toward staff and salaries.

Portions of the accrued Convention expenses will be reimbursed by the federal government, as is customary for both the RNC and DNC, with the check arriving sometime in July 2011. 

“The other thing to keep in mind,” Steele continued, “is that on the recommendation of the previous convention team we started this process earlier, so that we could take advantage of certain opportunities on the ground, being that we were in the middle of a recession at the time.”

The meme on convention spending has been “blown out of proportion,” Steele maintained.

Where’s the love?

A sore point for Steele is that his Republican critics, he argues, have done nothing to help the RNC.  Comparing his chairmanship to his Democratic counterpart Tim Kaine’s, Steele finds it outrageous and incongruous that he’s been the whipping boy.

“You don’t really see the same kind of chatter on the Democratic side, given the fact that they’ve lost races, [yet] we’ve won races.  They haven’t even got their convention process completed or done yet, and we’re well advanced in our process.”

Steele says he won’t let him be distracted by the criticisms. “We’ve got to continue to move forward on a very aggressive agenda to get us ready to take the White House in 2012.”