WASHINGTON-Just when Republicans are most in need of a comeback, a series of low-brow embarrassments are threatening the national party leadership's influence heading into the campaign season and November elections.
After news broke at the end of March that the Republican National Committee paid $1,900 for young donors to spend an evening at a racy nightclub in Los Angeles, heads have rolled. The mid-level staffer who authorized the nightclub excursion lost her job. One man who looks like he will keep his job is RNC chairman Michael Steele, despite a barrage of criticism that he is a lavish spender and self-promoter.
In the wake of the nightclub controversy, the most attention-grabbing of the committee's errors, RNC chief of staff Ken McKay, the top adviser to Steele, resigned. Following McKay's departure, one of the RNC's top consultants, Curt Anderson, cut ties with the committee. Tuesday, a New Hampshire RNC member-one of 168 elected members-announced his resignation stemming from his frustration with the Washington leadership, saying the club expenditure was "the straw that broke the camel's back."
The New Hampshire delegate, Sean Mahoney, perhaps had other matters factoring into his resignation. He has been considering a run against his district's Democratic congresswoman, Carol Shea-Porter, which requires him to resign his post. But Mahoney lectured Steele in his resignation letter: "The scandal represents a pattern of unaccountable and irresponsible mishaps that ought to unnerve every fiscal conservative. Overspending on private planes, limousines, remodeling, catered parties, and high-priced junkets demonstrates a complete lack of respect for RNC donors. . . . Mr. Chairman, do I need to remind you that the Republican Party is supposed to be the conservative party?"
Adding to its troubles, the RNC sent out fundraising mailers at the beginning of April with a return phone number that turned out to be a sex line. An RNC spokesman explained that it was an error-the number was supposed to have the Washington, D.C., area code 202. Instead it was printed as an 800 number. It added to the growing image of a party leadership without class. Earlier this year members of the RNC left a PowerPoint presentation at a hotel that ridiculed its own donors and depicted House Speaker Nancy Pelosi as Cruella DeVille and President Obama as the Joker from Batman.
Steele has said he doesn't plan to resign, and he would have to be ousted by a two-thirds majority of the RNC delegates, an unlikely scenario. Despite the setbacks, the RNC raised $11.4 million in March. But heading into November the committee has spent almost as much as it has raised.
Quietly, other Republican operatives are setting up an independent 527 political group to elect Republicans called American Crossroads. The man who Steele ousted as chairman, Mike Duncan, helped set up the parallel organization with other Republican heavyweights like former Bush advisor Karl Rove. The National Journal reported that the group has already received commitments of $30 million and is hoping to raise $60 million. Currently the RNC has $11.3 million in cash.
Legal experts predicted that 527s would have a much bigger influence in this year's elections following the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision, which allowed corporations to spend money on campaigns without giving directly to campaigns. That flow of money then would go to independent political arms-which handle "soft money"-instead of the official party.
"Unless the laws change, the political party as we know it is threatened with extinction," wrote Republican election lawyer Ben Ginsberg in a memo with several of his colleagues on the decision.
The RNC's woes may not signal the beginning of the end for political parties, but party excess and scandal make a much needed comeback that much harder.