It’s clear that Steele, now a political analyst with MSNBC, still smarts over the criticism he received during his tenure, including a March 2020 uproar over nearly $2,000 spent by members at a bondage-themed strip club in West Hollywood, California, something Steele himself lambasted at the time. He faced a constant drumbeat of criticism from GOP donors for lavish spending, including on private jets, expensive hotels, and a party retreat in Hawaii in 2010, and saw much of the party’s fundraising flee to outside groups.
“When I was chairman, everybody was like, Steele spends wildly. But no ones’ ever told you what I spend the money on: candidates who can win, infrastructure that would help those candidates win, and GOTV that could support that infrastructure to help those candidates win,” he says. “So if I spent this money wildly, how could you in the next breath say, oh he can’t raise money? Either I did raise the money that I’m ‘spending wildly,’ or I can’t raise the money.”
What Steele contends he did most successfully with the RNC’s money was to build a GOTV (“get out the vote”) program that he credits for the party’s success in the 2010 midterm elections. He cites a turf war between centralized spending at the top and his preference for letting state parties control their own dollars and campaigns, something he says comes from his having been a former local Republican committee chair.
“The RNC establishment vehemently criticized me because I took our GOTV program and put it into each individual state based on their capacity, their need and their ability to turn out the vote,” Steele said. “The Washington crowd excoriated me, including Gentry Collins,” (who very publicly resigned as Steele’s RNC political director in 2010 and then ran against him for RNC chair).
“The way it worked before me, was when it was time to do the 72 hour program” to turn out Republican voters in the closing days of an election; “they would go to Capitol Hill staffers and say, ‘how would you like to go to Florida or Ohio?’ People who, one, had not worked on the campaign up to that point, two, knew nothing about the state they were going into and three, who got in the way of everything that was going on, on the ground.”
“Fast forward to my tenure. We took the GOTV and put it back in the states,” Steele says. “We took the money that would have been spent housing, feeding and transporting Capitol Hill staff and we said, here’s a block grant of cash – I thought republicans liked block grants – and said here’s a grant that you can use for GOTV in your states.”
The former chairman says the current RNC establishment, under Mr. Priebus, threw out that successful playbook. He derides his successor’s efforts as akin to “massive plans to nowhere.”
“Instead of doing what was successful in 2010, they created this ORCA program, and I talked to state parties, and they had no idea what it was,” he says. “They didn’t see the people and more importantly they didn’t see the resources. … The cash didn’t get on the ground to where we needed it most. You had state parties that didn’t even have the cash to build an infrastructure after the fact, because the ORCA program wasn’t working. So when you have the political director of the RNC quoted on CNN a couple of days before the election saying we’re going to wipe the floor with Obama’s GOTV effort because ours is so superior … are you kidding me? All of this was part of the RNC’s plan to win the election and it fell flat.”
Steele on current GOP: ‘where’s the diversity?’
“If the RNC members want to go back and pat Priebus on the back, they’re going to have to go back to the activists and say, wait: the guy you fired managed to get African-Americans elected, Latinos elected.” Steele cities Nevada governor Brian Sandovol and New Mexico governor Susana Martinez, both Hispanic Republicans, South Carolina governor Nikki Haley, who is Indian-American, New Hampshire Senator Kelly Ayotte, and Tim Scott of South Carolina, and Florida’s Allen West, both African-Americans elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, as proof that his efforts to expand the party’s diversity paid off. (West recently lost his seat to a Democratic newcomer, Patrick Murphy.)
“Look at the diversity,” Steele insists. “That was the party that I created in two years. And they couldn’t even get poor Mia Love – a black, conservative Mormon from Utah — elected to congress.” Love, who had been a party star, lost a close race to the Democratic incumbent last week.