RNC Chairman Michael Steele throws cold water on GOP hopes

It seemed like a banner week for Republicans. Two veteran Senate Democrats announced their retirements. Hopes grew for major GOP gains in November’s congressional elections. And polls showed the president’s popularity at a low ebb.

But for Michael Steele, the flamboyant chairman of the Republican National Committee, that was the perfect moment to throw cold water on his party.

Just as Sens. Christopher J. Dodd of Connecticut and Byron L. Dorgan of North Dakota declared that they would not stand for reelection, Steele said in a TV interview that he didn’t believe Republicans could win enough seats to take control of the House in 2010.

What’s more, he said, he wasn’t sure his party was ready to be in charge.

When other Republicans howled that Steele was undercutting their efforts, he had a response ready: “Get a life,” he said Thursday in a radio interview with ABC News.

“If you don’t want me in the job, fire me. But until then, shut up,” he said. “Get with the program, or get out of the way.”

Controversy has followed Steele since he took the party’s reins almost a year ago, vowing to reverse its fading fortunes after Barack Obama won the White House and Democrats regained their Senate majority and boosted their edge in the House.

But telling fellow Republicans to shut up may not quiet his skeptics. Later in the day, Republican congressional staffers slammed Steele in a conference call with the RNC’s staff and implored the committee’s media aides to muffle him.

In the meantime, the Democratic media machine has had a field day during a week when it should have been licking its wounds.

It hasn’t just been Steele’s latest remarks that have sparked criticism. He has also been hammered for charging appearance fees for private speeches and for hawking his new book, “Right Now: A 12-Step Program for Defeating the Obama Agenda.”

Steele is represented by a firm that charges as much as $20,000 for his speeches, which has become a sensitive subject as the RNC’s struggling finances come to light. The committee has about $8 million in cash on hand with midterm congressional elections looming in November. It had $23 million when Steele took over last January.

Political parties tend to try to hoard their cash before congressional and presidential election years, but under Steele the committee spent heavily in 2009. Republicans won governors’ races in New Jersey and Virginia last year, but lost congressional special elections in California and New York.

Now, the RNC is on pace to raise much less money than it did during the last midterm election cycle in 2006, though that may not all be attributable to Steele. The economy was in better shape then, and, more important, George W. Bush was in the White House boosting Republican fundraising.

Lawrence E. Bathgate, a longtime GOP donor from New Jersey, said he hadn’t donated to the RNC this year, preferring instead to give money to the Republican Governors Assn. as well as the House and Senate campaign committees, which dole out money to candidates.

Bathgate, who served as the RNC’s finance chairman during President George H.W. Bush’s administration, was quick to praise Steele but added that he believed it was more effective to contribute to the other GOP organizations. He also noted that campaign finance laws limit the amount a donor can give to political parties.

“You have to make choices when you’re giving to candidates for federal office,” Bathgate said.

But Jan Baran, an election-law expert in Washington and former lawyer for the RNC, said that the organization’s tepid fundraising must be viewed somewhat as a referendum on Steele’s tenure.

“It does reflect a growing dissatisfaction with Michael Steele within the party,” Baran said. “He’s not helping the party. He’s not helping himself.”

Steele, a former lieutenant governor of Maryland and a failed Senate candidate, assumed the RNC post after the party was routed in the 2008 elections. He pledged to modernize the operation and reach out to minorities and others who had not been part of the traditional Republican base.

But he’s riled conservatives and moderates almost from the start. He picked a fight with Rush Limbaugh, threatened to support conservative challengers in primaries against moderate Republican incumbents, and called abortion an “individual choice.”

In his radio interview Thursday, Steele gave his tenure a “solid B.”

“A B is not bad,” Steele said, but added, “I can do better.”