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With RNC Faltering, Funders Look Elsewhere


RNC Chairman Michael Steele's gaffes have put him in the limelight. (ZUMA)

The traditional fundraising bulwark for the GOP, the Republican National Committee is having a bad year, to say the least. Chairman Michael Steele has managed to get himself noticed for almost everything except his fundraising prowess, from his questioning of the U.S. commitment in Afghanistan to his promising an “off the hook” rebranding effort to make the GOP more appealing in “hip-hop settings.” Steele’s gaffes and antics led Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.), the minority whip, to publicly advise him to “focus on the traditional role of the party chair, which is to raise the resources necessary and deliver the election” earlier this month.

Then, just when the embarrassing reports seemed to be dying down, The Washington Times reported that the RNC failed to disclose more than $7 million in debt to the Federal Election Commission. That prompted the RNC’s own treasurer, Randy Pullen, to accuse Steele and his chief of staff, Michael Leavitt, of trying to conceal the information from him. The RNC denied Pullen’s charges, but the damage had already been done. Many conservative donors already believe the RNC is becoming less and less helpful to candidates and less and less relevant to the party itself. Now, many worry that the committee might actually hurt the party’s chances of accomplishing its biggest goal this campaign season: taking back the House in November.

While numerous conservative organizations have emerged to pick up the fundraising mantle, some election observers point out that these organizations aren’t endowed with the RNC’s unique coordinating mission — circumstances that will make for a less predictable midterm election season and may hurt Republican candidates at the margins.

“When you look back to 2006, we’ve raised more this cycle, indexed for inflation, than the DNC had then,” RNC spokesman Doug Heye argues. “Same scenario if you look at the Republicans in 1994.” As for the unreported debt, the RNC claims the media reports have been wildly exaggerated and, as of mid-July, all debts have been paid in full.

But comparing the RNC’s 2010 finances with any year since 2002, the problems become clear. In May, CNN noted that the RNC’s $12.5 million was less than a third of the amount it had on hand at the same time of either the 2002 ($47 million) or the 2006 ($44.6 million) midterm election cycle. The circumstances have all but ruled out the RNC’s chances of substantially helping out the National Republican Congressional Committee, which is itself getting outfundraised by its Democratic counterpart by a ratio of nearly 2 to 1.

In addition to simply having less cash, concerns have also been raised about the RNC’s ability to perform its traditional coordinating role: creating “victory centers” to support field operations and to synchronize voter identification and outreach programs for House, Senate and gubernatorial races in each state. “It’s always helpful [for the RNC to coordinate]. You don’t duplicate an organizational effort, or a fundraising effort, if you’re on the same page,” observes Republican political consultant Stuart Spencer.

“There are things the national committee does: managing voter lists and managing turnout programs, for instance,” says David Norcross, a member of the Executive Committee of the Republican National Committee. He does not think the committee is so strapped for cash that it will neglect these functions. But he allows that the RNC’s lack of funds might hurt its ability to provide ample support to state and local party organizations across the country. “Am I disappointed? Yes. Up in arms? No,” he says.

Other observers note that Republicans, well aware of the RNC’s problems, are looking elsewhere for funding and organization. “If you’re comparing the most functional part of Democrats and the least functional part of Republicans, you’ll get a misleading judgment,” cautions William Galston, former policy adviser to President Clinton and senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

Indeed, a group of major past RNC donors, fed up with Steele’s antics, pledged in June to donate their money elsewhere. The Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling has only made it easier for outside organizations, often referred to as 527s, to spend vast sums of money on behalf of issues and candidates in the upcoming election cycle.

And a number of organizations are ready to receive the funds. One of the most prominent is American Crossroads, the brainchild of former Bush strategist Karl Rove and former RNC Chairman Ed Gillespie. The 527 organization has set a goal of raising $52 million by November to wage an independent campaign to help GOP candidates win office. And Republican-friendly industry groups, like the Chamber of Commerce, health insurers and coal companies, are all contemplating their own aggressive spending strategies.

In some ways, these outside groups can be more effective than the RNC. “Some of these independent groups can take more risks,” observes Meredith Megehee, policy director at the Campaign Legal Center. “They don’t have to worry about whether the party is healthy in all 50 states. They can take a much more opportunistic approach.”

But they can also be a liability. The Supreme Court’s decision affirmed companies’ and groups’ First Amendment rights to spend freely on independent political broadcasts in the upcoming elections. But they are still legally barred from coordinating their activities with the parties or candidates themselves.

“The party usually won’t do what the candidate won’t want them to do,” notes McGehee, “but it can happen all the time where outside groups come in and spend some money for you or attack your opponent and it’s not what you want them to attack him on or you might think it might backfire. Sometimes the message that they do is counterproductive, and you think ‘Oh I wish they could talk to me about it.’”

When it comes to 2010, the jury is still out on whether the Republicans’ scattershot spending efforts will prove a liability or not. “Frankly, I think the message is so simple and the wind is so much at our back that [coordination] doesn’t really matter,” argues Norcross. “If we get the message out — too much debt, too much future debt, too much deficit — you don’t have to be a genius to communicate that message.”

“These sorts of things tend to make a difference at the margins,” Galston says. “If this turns out to be a wave election like 1994, then the various committees are just corks bobbing in the sea.”

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