One thing is very clear in the controversy now swamping Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele: The RNC very much wants to stop talking about it.
The scandal broke Monday, when conservative Web site The Daily Caller reviewed recent RNC filings with the Federal Elections Committee and discovered that the RNC had spent $1,946 on an edgy sexually themed Hollywood nightclub called Voyeur. The February expenditure documents also showed that the committee sprang for $17,000 in chartered plane fees and $12,000 in limousine expenses in February — and according to The Daily Caller, Steele had suggested that the committee bankroll a private jet for him.
On Tuesday, the RNC announced that it had fired the staffer who’d put in the Voyeur expense — which was a reimbursement to a California donor named Erik Brown — and that Brown was returning the Voyeur-related money to the RNC so that, in financial terms at least, it would be as though the whole thing had never happened. A statement from RNC Chief of Staff Ken McKay on the dismissal of the staffer underlined that the bondage-club outing “was not an RNC-sanctioned event.” Instead, McKay explained, it took place at the behest of a group of prospective young donors — called the Young Eagles in RNC parlance — after a dinner at a pricey Hollywood restaurant. (Hotline OnCall reports that the dismissed staffer was Allison Meyers, the director of the under-45 Young Eagles donor initiative.) “At no time was Chairman Steele … or any other member of the senior staff aware of the purpose of this reimbursement or present at the after-hours non-official get-together,” McKay’s statement said. (Even so, Brown remains a close friend of Steele, having alluded to outings with the RNC chairman in his Twitter feed, and RNC-related postings on his Facebook page. And an AP report notes that Brown has billed some $19,000 in business from the committee to his firm, Dynamic marketing, Inc., while donating several thousand in funds to the RNC.)
Though RNC spokesman Doug Heye told Yahoo! News that McKay’s announcement “ends the story for us,” plenty of questions linger about Steele’s tenure at the RNC, and his ability to hang onto his post amid growing criticism of RNC expenditures.
In an MSNBC interview Tuesday morning, conservative pundit Armstrong Williams said that, despite Meyers’ firing, Steele isn’t in the clear so far as some party insiders and major donors are concerned.
“Many people in the party have seen him — while there’s some things that he’s done well, they’ve seen him as an embarrassment for a long time. … You can only defend this guy for so long,” he said. “If something doesn’t happen and happen fast, the Republican Party and its donors, it’s just gonna be off the chain.”
One factor likely to help Steele, however, is the logistical headache of recalling a committee chairman and staging a special election among the donors who make up the RNC board. It was difficult enough for the committee to settle on Steele when he was elected in early 2009 — it took six ballots from the 168 donors convened to select a chairman in order to yield him an 85-vote majority.
And if Steele were to be booted, he would go a lot less quietly than a midlevel staffer like Meyers seems to have done — ensuring that the embarrassing Voyeur story and reports of Steele’s other high-end expenditures on the job would continue percolating in the news cycle. The committee already had its hands full controlling damage from the fundraising memo that leaked earlier this month outlining a donor strategy to capitalize on “fear.” That leaked document spurred much outrage in the Tea Party movement — a key constituency that’s absorbing much of the activist energy and fundraising momentum on the right. Meanwhile, even before the scandal already known as “bondage-gate,” Meyers’ Young Eagle group had stirred up its own share of unwelcome publicity, scheduling a fundraising event at the North Carolina headquarters of Xe, the controversy-ridden security contractor formerly known as Blackwater.
There’s a more ironic reason that Steele seems likely to stay put: the RNC’s own lackluster performance in the partisan fundraising wars. The committee began the year on more-or-less equal fundraising footing with the Democratic National Committee. But coming into a crucial midterm election season, for which Republicans harbor ambitious hopes to capitalize on health care discontent to take a majority in the House, pressure is building on the RNC to gain significant ground. So far, the committee under Steele is keeping barely ahead of DNC fundraising on a month-to-month basis — but behind both the DNC’s overall totals and the RNC’s historic push for cash in election cycles. A protracted power struggle at the top of the committee would only complicate efforts to attract big-ticket donors to the RNC.
Much as the RNC’s leaders are keen to put the Voyeur scandal behind them, the Democrats are going to be just as insistently touting its ongoing fallout — and Steele’s spending habits — as an advantage for their side.
“Anyone who’s a political professional would admit that you’ve got to spend money to raise money,” one senior Democratic source told Yahoo! News. “But there’s a difference between the way we’ve been spending and the way Steele’s been spending. He’s been spending with … abandon; it’s been very spendthrifty. And it’s on things that don’t necessarily bring in more money, like redecorating the chairman’s office.”
DNC spokesman Hari Sevugan put matters more succinctly on Twitter Tuesday morning: “What’s more obscene? A night at the Voyeur West Hollywood or firing junior staffer while the Chairman and sr staff duck responsibility?”
— Chris Lehmann is managing editor of the Yahoo! News blog.
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