Tuesday's resignation of RNC member Sean Mahoney was propitious timing for the would-be congressional candidate: ahead a of midterm election where anger at the powers that be inside the Republican Party is high, what better way to protest the shenanigans of chairman Michael Steele?
But Mahoney should look in the mirror. He was a steadfast support of Steele's. The reason why Steele was elected by the membership was because he was to be the public voice of a party transitioning to a new generation, a new way of thinking. Steele sold himself as someone who would vigorously argue the case of the Republican Party in public and effectively represent his brand. Turns out, though, that Steele isn't as good of a communicator as he thought... that no one is in the mood to listen to arguments about why Republicans are better than Democrats...that Steele would not be counted on to discipline himself like RNC leaders in the past. Steele wasn't elected to manage the party -- the party basically manages itself.
The daily operation of the committee was run by a trifecta of forces: long-time RNC field operative and consultant Blaize Hazelwood, party strategist Curt Anderson and Ken McKay, an outsider Anderson recruited to serve as chief of staff.
That management structure did not work. Anderson and Hazelwood were often at odds, leaving decisions unmade. Steele, amiable enough, didn't find a core team of communication professionals to tend to his public image. Alex Castellanos, an informal unpaid consultant, publicly signaled his displeasure with Steele yesterday. Then again, it's fashionable to scapegoat Steele for problems that have less to do with him and more to do with the state of political parties and the mood of Republicans themselves.
Bondage-gate -- a $2000 charge that represents spare change to the committee -- may have been the proximate cause for McKay's firing, but the fact that Anderson left with him suggests that management problems were deeper. Hazelwood knows how to run campaigns but isn't widely liked, is now firmly in charge, for now. Feelers to other potential chiefs of staff have so far been rebuffed. Who would want the job?
The biggest thing the RNC does is in an election year is become a conduit to flow money and resources to targeted races. But there are ways around that -- much like the Democratic congressional committees worked around Howard Dean in 2006. And though the Dems are raising more money, the RNC is keeping pace. It's working well with state parties, sharing targeting data with campaigns, keeping research files on the 2012 Democrats -- doing the sort of things that modern political parties do. Just this morning, it announced an $11.4 million fundraising month. It's debt-free, and has about $11m cash on hand. That's less than normal, but Steele hopes to have about $30 million in reserves to spend on the fall elections. (Democrats continue to outraise Republicans, thanks to the fundraising allure of President Obama and Vice President Biden.)
The real question to ask when pondering Steele's future is to ask House Minority Leader John Boehner, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Haley Barbour what they think. It's their perceptions that really matter. If they can work around the controversy and work around the RNC, they will. If they can't, they'll move to force Steele out -- very quickly. So far, it's not a problem. The Republican Governors Association has more money than it's ever had, and Barbour says they can raise more if they need to. The NRSC and NRCC have plenty of money; Karl Rove and Ed Gillespie are raising at least $30 million to fund a 527 political organization. Other outside groups are in the works. Major state parties are doing really well on their own, including Michigan, California, Ohio.
The RNC as a committee is weak and divided. There is no alternative candidate or party chair waiting in the wings. And the party is right in the middle of a campaign, with weeks away from the start of the primary season. A leadership race right now would distract time, resources and money. It's not in the cards.
Steele might be in real trouble in the period from November through January -- when the presidential candidates decide whether he is a liability or a distraction. Such a decision would likely be made collectively -- and a consensus candidate would be pre-chosen, in essence.
Does Michael Steele's big mouth and these financial hiccups -- really, $2000 at a strip club is a hiccup -- threaten the party's political future? Not more so than if Steele resigned or was forced out.
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is a senior fellow at the USC Annenberg Center on Communication Leadership and Policy.