WASHINGTON -- Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele's already rocky tenure got even more turbulent on Tuesday after the committee's political director quit his post and then penned and leaked a stinging letter rebuking his former boss.
The five-page letter, authored by longtime GOP operative Gentry Collins, accused Steele of gross mismanagement of RNC finances, failure to manage Republican Party operations, and misfiring on key elections during the 2010 cycle. The RNC responded in due course with a statement touting the major -- indeed, historic -- advances that the party made during the just-completed cycle.
But by the time that response was put out for public consumption, the bruises were hard to cover up. Cindy Costa, an RNC member who has long been a Steele critic, called the Collins memo both "disconcerting" and an affirmation of her position that a new chairman is needed.
"When we go up to the RNC we expect to get the facts and the truth and I'm disappointed because we were led to think everything was going along fine," Costa told the Huffington Post. "I personally feel like Michael Steele would do himself a big favor to just step back, look at his tenure as RNC chairman, realize he had a fairly successful tenure but realize that now is the time to turn over the reigns to someone who can raise the funds necessary to win in 2012."
"I called upon Mr. Steele to resign," said Doug MacKinnon, a one-time adviser to former Majority Leader Bob Dole. "Mr. Collins' letter is just further evidence that Mr. Steele is not up to the job. For the good of the GOP and in my opinion, for the good of the nation, Mr. Steele must walk away from the RNC and turn the reins over to more capable, committed and energetic hands."
Other Republican hands, who spoke only on the condition of anonymity, were far more blunt in their assessment of Steele. The chairman was now isolated within his own organization, they said. And while the staff on hand defend his record against Collins and other detractors, dejection and strife loom close to the surface.
"The only people left who care about Steele are his inner circle who were on [his Senate] campaign team in '06," said one GOP operative who has close ties to the RNC.
"Exactly," said a senior Republican who works closely with the RNC. "This is a member of the senior staff who is more responsible for the relevance of the RNC than anyone at the committee expressing deep reservations about the structure of the committee. It's not surprising that others feel the same way."
Perhaps the most telling fallout of the Collin's memo, in the end, is the willingness of former RNC aides and allies to promote it. Moments after Politico posted excerpts of the screed, Trevor Francis, the committee's former communications director who left the post one year into Steele's tenure, passed the full letter on to reporters. Alex Castellanos, a longtime GOP consultant who has advised the RNC while Steele headed it, commented that it was "a sad day for the GOP but the search for a new chairman now begins in earnest."
In many ways, the narrative is an old one. Since assuming the post of RNC Chair two years ago, Steele has been beset by a series of controversial statements and expenditures and, in turn, calls for his resignation. His performance as a fundraiser was actually, exemplary. But what he did with that money was a source of confusion. State parties complained about lacking funds to run their Get Out The Vote operations; the party's vaunted 72-hour turnout program was left unfunded; and the committee couldn't foot the bill for an independent expenditure ad campaign.
Most alarming, Collins wrote, was the state of the committee heading into the next presidential race: "In the previous two non-presidential cycles, the RNC carried over $4.8 million and $3.1 million respectively in cash reserve balances into the presidential cycles," he wrote. "In stark contrast, we enter the 2012 presidential cycle with 100% of the RNC's $15 million in lines of credit tapped out, and unpaid bills likely to add millions to that debt."
Rather than shoot the messenger, the RNC responded by disputing Collins' conclusions.
"For the first time in 16 years the Republican Party held neither the White House or either Chamber of Congress," read a statement released by the RNC's communications director Doug Heye, "Despite lacking that fundraising advantage, the RNC was able to raise more than $175 million, over $24 million more than the RNC raised during the entire 1994 cycle and over $36 million more than the DNC raised during the entire 2006 cycle, indexed for inflation. Our resources enabled us to expand the playing field to all 50 states and break records with 45 million voter contacts, over 200,000 volunteers, 360 Victory field offices and 358 Victory field staffers. These accomplishments are shared by our entire team at the RNC as well as volunteers, donors and state parties. Their efforts enabled us to contribute to the most successful elections for the Republican Party in modern times."
But even that response left observers reading between the lines. Collins, after all, knows all these data points. He was overseeing the RNC's political apparatus. And in his letter he made the case that the money brought in by Steele should have bought more than field offices, voter contacts, and staff salaries. The party's "low cash-on-hand figures," he wrote, "are not simply the result of early spending or transfers to state parties."
"If they didn't spend it on GOTV and they didn't spend it on IE and they didn't spend it on this, then what was it spent on?" asked the GOP operative who has close ties to the RNC. "How do you have epic fundraising, less transfers, less IE? What do you do with that money?"
More than that, the question remains: why didn't the RNC say anything specific about Collins himself? Leaving the committee on your own terms is one thing. To do so in a blaze of finger-pointing glory and scathing recriminations is quite another.
"I think it really comes down to whether or not [Steele] thinks he can hang on," said one senior Democrat, who was watching the fallout with glee. "If so I'd refute his letter point by point and then on background rip his nuts off and discredit him if I had anything."