Republican Leaders Quietly Work Around Steele, Keep Focus on Election

RNC Chairman Michael Steele speaks at the 2010 Southern Republican Leadership Conference in New Orleans April 10. (Reuters Photo)

RNC Chairman Michael Steele speaks at the 2010 Southern Republican Leadership Conference in New Orleans April 10. (Reuters Photo)

It's becoming a familiar scene: Republicans gather for strategy sessions against Democrats, but Michael Steele, the brash chairman of the Republican National Committee, is out dealing with some spending, verbal or managerial gaffe. 

Fed-up Republican leaders are now quietly working around their party chairman as they prepare for the fall midterm elections. 

This is considered a big year for Republicans. Steele warned at a conference Saturday that his party can't make the mistake of losing in November. 

And his fellow Republicans agree. Behind the scenes, they have deliberately begun to rely less on Republican headquarters with Steele at the helm. That may not be their preference, considering the RNC controls hundreds of millions of dollars worth of research, multimedia and communications technology and personnel. 

But too often, the party chairman is involved elsewhere. 

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At the same speech Saturday, Steele was acknowledging the problems he's had, particularly following the burgeoning controversy over party spending and a party-paid visit to a Hollywood strip club. 

"I'm the first here to admit that I've made mistakes and it's been incumbent on me to take responsibility to shoulder that burden, make the necessary changes and move on," Steele said. 

There was little disagreement among about 3,000 GOP activists at the Southern Republican Leadership Conference in New Orleans. 

Steele's speech came a day after his aides released a letter of support from less than half the voting members of the RNC. 

House and Senate Republican leaders have made no secret of their frustration over embarrassing headlines about the committee. 

Though the GOP needs the national party headquarters in gear for fundraising, organizing, research and messaging, the headlines about RNC spending and internal strife cause distractions and can be demoralizing. 

The Republican House, Senate and gubernatorial campaigns are now stretching and expanding their own operations to compensate for the counter-productivity of recent RNC problems. 

Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and House Republican Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, have already taken steps to rely less on the RNC and expand efforts by the National Republican Senatorial Committee and National Republican Congressional Committee, respectively. 

Both of those committees last year got $2 million from the RNC, which also poured $12 million into the significant New Jersey and Virginia gubernatorial victories. 

Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, who chairs the Republican Governors Association and ran the RNC during the 1994 Republican takeover in Congress, has tried to offer Steele help -- but experienced some frustration. 

Republican leaders have mostly stopped criticizing Steele in public, seeing it as too counterproductive. But insiders say many top Republican elected officials have spoken with Steele and come away convinced that regardless of cautionary advice the chairman is going to follow his own path. With the election seven months away, GOP leaders have little time for RNC drama and are turning their focus to vulnerable Democrats. 

Conservative activists and ex-officials are also filling in the gap. 

The grassroots Tea Party movement, for all the grief it gives some mainstream Republicans, probably helps the Republican National Committee by providing an alternative outlet for conservative activism at a time of party turmoil. 

And for months, new outside conservative groups and organizations have been popping up to duplicate and provide many of the political services the RNC is known for. 

Most recently, former RNC Chairman Mike Duncan and other GOP heavyweights unveiled their "American Cross Roads" project, a political action committee which they hope will pull in $51 million to battle Democrats this fall.