RNC Rancor: Steele vs. the Establishment

The Republican National Committee is riven by a dispute between Chairman Michael Steele and a faction of RNC establishment veterans that threatens to undermine Steele’s ability to put his stamp on the national party.

The latest flashpoint is an acrimonious, increasingly public fight over control of the GOP’s finances that pits Steele’s team of consultants and younger RNC members against a contingent of longtime committee members who opposed his election and remain distrustful of his leadership.

“One thing led to another and it spiraled out of control,” said one Republican national committeeman. “These are the Jews and the Palestinians here.”

The clash comes at an especially inopportune time for both Steele and the GOP. Steele got off to a rough start as chairman by delivering a series of public gaffes, an inauspicious debut that was followed by a disappointing loss in a special election in New York’s 20th congressional district.

Tuesday’s party switch by Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter dealt the GOP another painful blow and spurred renewed criticism of Steele, who earlier suggested he might support a primary challenger to the embattled five-term incumbent.

“These guys are in a bunker mentality,” the RNC member said of Steele’s team. “I understand why they feel that way.”

The most recent conflict within the RNC surfaced last week, when RNC Treasurer Randy Pullen, the Arizona state party chairman, spoke with Steele and his team to suggest a set of new oversight measures that would have placed stricter limits on the chairman’s ability to spend the committee’s money.

Among the new constraints: requirements that Steele submit all spending over $100,000 to the RNC’s executive committee, that he appoint a chief financial officer reporting to the executive committee and that he seek executive committee approval for any debt the party takes on.

“They obviously weren’t in favor of” the proposal, Pullen told POLITICO Thursday. “The facts are: we need to get a resolution on good governance in place like we’ve had in previous years.”

But Steele’s supporters suspected a more insidious motive behind Pullen’s moves, and when the treasurer emailed his resolution to the full RNC over the weekend, they responded immediately—and angrily. Wisconsin Republican Party Chair Reince Priebus, a Steele ally, replied to Pullen’s message with a missive of his own, charging the RNC treasurer with an “attempt to usurp the Chairman’s authority.”

And on Thursday, Florida Republican Party Chair Jim Greer painted the resolution as an attempt to undermine a controversial, but duly elected party officer.

“There’s nothing, really, in the resolution I see any need for whatsoever,” Greer said. “I think there are some that want to re-live the [RNC] election through means other than a vote.”

The provision that would force Steele to clear all big-ticket expenditures with the executive committee struck some Republican insiders as particularly disturbing.

“That’s basically taking the authority away from the chairman to be the chairman,” a Republican consultant friendly to Steele said of Pullen’s resolution, calling it a “backbiting campaign by sore losers.”

Some committee members who are more sympathetic to Pullen’s initiative acknowledge that there is something of a generational, and perhaps stylistic, divide at work.

“I have friends on both sides of this argument,” said South Carolina Republican Party Chair Katon Dawson. “The folks who would be making this argument from the treasurer’s position understand how the committee was run when Haley Barbour was there [and] when Bill Brock was there.”

By contrast, Steele’s team tends to be made up of more recently elected members of the committee, who don’t necessarily approach their roles with similar reverence for RNC custom.

“I think that Priebus is new and most of the people that were co-authors of the resolution have been around for awhile,” another RNC member said. “A lot of the supporters of Chairman Steele are people who haven’t been on the committee for a very long period of time.”

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich spoke to that issue Thursday when he praised Steele for exactly that aspect of his leadership, calling him a “huge shock because he is different.”

“The Republican National Committee is this tiny group of people, some of whom have been there 20 years or more,” he said in an interview on C-SPAN’s Washington Journal. “And they all think they're precious. And they all think they should be taken care of.”

Supporters of Pullen’s resolution, including national committeemen David Norcross of New Jersey, Ron Kaufman of Massachusetts, Alec Poitevint of Georgia and Blake Hall of Idaho, insist the resolution wasn’t a direct response to any of Steele’s management decisions.

Norcross, who sits on the RNC’s executive committee, denied that it was a reaction to “any particular recent expense – whatever the Chairman and his people may think.”

Norcross said most of the controls had been in place since at least the mid-1990s, when he was general counsel, but had lapsed before Steele’s election as chairman.

“It should have been done in Minneapolis. It wasn’t,” he said. “But it doesn’t reflect on Steele.”

Nonetheless, Norcross blamed Steele and his allies for refusing to embrace the controls and “seeing this as an attempt to get him. That’s not what it is about. If I were chairman, I would want this resolution or something like it in place.”

Other Republicans point to the RNC’s recent FEC report as a source of some concern, highlighting the need for greater oversight.

The committee’s financial reports http://query.nictusa.com/cgi-bin/dcdev/forms/C00003418/414604/#DETAILED show that last month it paid nearly $22,000 to a Washington, D.C. interior decorator, though RNC spokesman Todd Irons said only $18,500 of that was for “improvements to the chairman’s office.”

The rest went towards sprucing up other parts of the committee’s Capitol Hill headquarters, Irons said, pointing out that past incoming chairs have also redecorated the office. He declined to provide specifics and the decorator did not return phone calls.

Several Steele critics pointed to the $41,000 the committee paid to On Message Inc., a consulting firm owned by Steele loyalists, for speech writing and “survey cost.” Those are the only payments the firm has received from a federal committee this year, according to campaign finance records.

In addition, $30,000 went to another Steele ally’s firm, Grassroots Targeting.

During the race for RNC chair, Steele highlighted his commitment to reforming party practices surrounding consulting contracts and vendors.

And it’s not just disbursements that have irked some committee members—staffing issues are another point of tension.

The national party is still without a press secretary, a research director and has yet to fill several other positions, according to the RNC’s Irons.

Norcross also pointed to the dismissal of RNC comptroller Jay Banning, a 33-year committee employee who left late last month, as a cause for concern.

“I would not have fired Jay Banning and I don’t think he should have,” said Norcross.

“Jay was trusted by years of budget chairmen and years of chairmen and years of treasurers,” he continued, explaining Banning’s dismissal led to a clause in the resolution requiring the chairman to appoint a comptroller or chief financial officer who would report to the executive committee and couldn’t be fired without its consent.

Reached at home, Banning hung up on a POLITICO reporter asking for comment.

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