GOP leaders seek to distance themselves from Michael Steele

Republican leaders in Congress have moved to distance themselves from GOP national chairman Michael Steele, but that job will become more difficult as the spotlight on the midterm election intensifies.

A GOP lawmaker who requested anonymity said the Republican National Committee (RNC) chairman’s relationship with House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) is “not good at all.”

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The legislator added, “Steele lacks a base of support. The donors, the activists will all drop him if they sense he might squander the electoral opportunity of the decade.”

In an interview with The Hill earlier this month, Boehner said he only talks to the RNC chairman “every month or two.” Asked if Steele will have a role in Boehner’s effort to release another policy document like the Contract with America, Boehner replied, “No.”

House Minority Whip Eric Cantor (R-Va.) criticized Steele for holding an RNC retreat in Hawaii while also taking issue with the chairman’s initial prediction that the GOP would not take back the House in November.

At the time, Cantor said, “Chairman Steele has a role to play in these elections. Obviously, I have said that I disagree with his statement that we can’t take back the House. So do I want voters to think that Republicans do nothing but go to beach resorts in January? No.”


Meanwhile, McConnell declined to defend Steele in January after the RNC chief made some controversial remarks. McConnell said, “Chairman Steele will be judged on the basis of how much money did he raise and how many candidates did he elect.”

RNC spokesman Doug Heye disputed suggestions that there are frosty relations between Steele and GOP congressional leaders.

“Eric Cantor has repeatedly said good things about the chairman. Obviously he didn’t agree with some expenses in Hawaii, but overall he’s been very supportive. We have a great relationship with McConnell’s office,” Heye said, noting that Steele talks to Boehner on the phone “with some frequency.”

Heye disputed Boehner’s claim about how often the House GOP leader and Steele communicate.

“I know they talk with frequency. I saw them talking two or three days after [Boehner’s interview with The Hill]. I saw it with my own eyes,” Heye explained.

Before The Daily Caller reported this week that the RNC expensed a trip to a risqué nightclub, Republicans had been critical of how much money the RNC has spent in the 2009-2010 cycle. The RNC’s money situation is especially important to the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC). The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has more than a $13 million cash-on-hand advantage over the NRCC.

It is unclear how much money the RNC will spend on House races this fall. Boehner told The Hill that House Republicans need to pick up their fundraising efforts in the months ahead.

Removing Steele before the elections would be extremely difficult. A motion to oust him would have to be approved by a two-thirds vote of the entire RNC. Such a move could be disastrous politically, because senior GOP officials say the party is trying to attract more minority voters. Steele, who is black, last year said white Republicans are afraid of him.

Furthermore, a divisive push to remove Steele months before the election would be relished by Democrats.

One of the problems for Republicans on Capitol Hill is that Steele doesn’t take orders. After a series of gaffes in 2009, the RNC chairman continued to agree to interviews before briefly assuming a low profile.

In a January interview, Steele instructed his GOP critics “to get a life.”

He added, “I’ve had enough of it. If you don’t want me in the job, fire me. But until then, shut up. Get with the program or get out of the way.”

Keeping Steele off the Sunday talk shows after Labor Day could prove to be very difficult.

However, a leadership aide said GOP leaders have found a way to “work around” Steele.

“We’ve had a year to figure out how to work around him,” this aide said, noting that donors who refuse to give to the RNC as a result of Steele’s gaffes are more open to giving to the NRCC and/or the National Republican Senatorial Committee.

“Would it be helpful if we had a Haley Barbour-esque chairman again? … Ironically, we have Haley Barbour — he’s just head of the Republican Governors Association, and in a way he’s doing a lot of the same things over there,” the aide explained.

In contrast to communication with Steele’s staff, sources say that Boehner aides and staffers who work for the Mississippi governor talk on a daily basis.

Jack Pitney, a political science professor at Claremont McKenna University, said, “If [congressional] leaders tried to rein [Steele] in, he could very well react in a way they don’t like, so at this point the most prudent course is just not to mention him at all.“

Pitney added, “My advice to Republicans is if the subject is Michael Steele, change the subject.”

For now, Republicans in Congress are just planning to grin and bear it.

“It’s the hand that we’re dealt right now,” the Republican leadership aide said.

This story was originally published Tuesday March 30, 2010 at 2:54 PM.