Conservative donors see latest RNC scandal as ‘nail in the coffin’

The “suggested amount” portion of the donation form is crossed out. There isn’t a box to check for no donation, so the would-be donor has simply drawn and filled in a new bubble and scrawled “NO.”

“What the hell happened in NY District 23?” writes the anonymous donor to an unrewarded Republican National Committee. “You guys supporting Dede Scozzafava?”

RNC Chairman Michael Steele

The form is one of many collected by blogger, columnist and TV pundit Michelle Malkin since the RNC chipped in for the doomed congressional campaign of Scozzafava, a moderate Republican who eventually withdrew from a November 2009 special election and helped Rep. Bill Owens (D-N.Y.) squeak past Conservative Party candidate Doug Hoffman. In the wake of Monday’s Daily Caller story on the RNC’s lavish spending, including a $1,923 check to the Voyeur West Hollywood nightclub — an embarrassment to RNC Chairman Michael Steele for which the offender, Allison Meyers, was fired, and her upcoming events postponed — Malkin put up another batch of defiled RNC donation forms, with graffiti like “Fire Steele. Hire Cheney. (Dick or Liz.) Then Get Back to Me.”

The Voyeur story dogged the RNC all week, especially after the committee pointed to outsized Democratic National Committee expenses as a distraction (giving the DNC an opportunity to take another whack at the juicier RNC tale) and after Politico noticed that a typo on one solicitation form sent donors to a phone sex line. But for many conservative activists, it only accelerated and amplified a revolt against the RNC that had been brewing for months. It’s given the growing number of conservative PACs and projects a new selling point to potential donors. And it’s emboldened the sizable number of loose-lipped Republican activists who are working to create new institutions outside of Steele’s purview.

“This nightclub story is absolutely awful,” said Eric Odom, a Tea Party activist and the chairman of Liberty First PAC, “but the RNC just came off of a meeting in Hawaii, and that was even worse. I don’t think there are conservatives who are going to turn on the RNC just because of this story. I think it’s the nail in the coffin.”

According to Odom — who famously denied Steele a speaking slot at the April 15, 2009 anti-tax Tea Party in Chicago (Steele, at the time, denied that he had wanted to speak) — donors to Liberty First PAC have been submitting RNC-bashing notes along with their checks. One out of ten donations via Paypal, said Odom, came with a message along the lines of “2009 was the last year I’ll donate to a party.”

Mark Skoda, the leader of the Memphis TEA Party who launched the Ensuring Liberty PAC at February’s National Tea Party Convention, told TWI that the troubles that had beset the RNC would be impossible in his group — and potential donors knew it.

“We’re not going to be buying first-class tickets,” said Skoda, who is convening the first meeting of Ensuring Liberty’s board next week. “There’ll be no big parties. We’re operating like a business. I used to work for FedEx — these things like vast overcharges didn’t happen.”

Skoda, who said he “felt bad” for Steele after hearing the Voyeur news, emphasized that Ensuring Liberty would be “a complement,” not a competitor, to the RNC. It would back Republican candidates, albeit after making sure they fit the PAC’s exacting standards and didn’t just have an “R” next to their names on the ballot. But other conservatives are less diplomatic. On Wednesday night, Family Research Council President Tony Perkins sent a blunt message to supporters: “Don’t give money to the RNC.” On Thursday afternoon, the Leadership Institute — whose president, Morton Blackwell, is an RNC committeeman – posted a Facebook message commenting favorably on the Perkins news. (Blackwell is out of the country and did not respond to requests for comment.)

The evidence of conservative donors taking their money elsewhere is hard to track. In the final quarter of 2009, for example, the most prominent competitors for conservatives’ donations pulled in modest amounts of money. Our Country Deserves Better PAC, the group behind the Tea Party Express, had only $161,174 in receipts. The Senate Conservatives Fund, Sen. Jim DeMint’s (R-S.C.) PAC to aid his hand-picked candidates, raised $238,189. By comparison, the RNC raised $22,295,310. But activists point to the RNC’s low cash-on-hand numbers to make their case.

“The bottom line is that Michael Steele never should have gotten this job in the first place,” said one exasperated conservative fundraiser. “Nothing that’s happening now should surprise anyone.”

That criticism has surfaced again and again as conservatives court donors for their projects. On Thursday, Jonathan Strong — the reporter whose initial Voyeur story started the latest stampede against the RNC – cobbled together the last few years’ worth of negative stories about Steele’s managerial and financial problems. They hadn’t been enough to push conservatives away from Steele when he ran for the U.S. Senate in 2006 or the RNC chairmanship in 2009. Indeed, in 2005, conservatives rallied around Steele when the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee hacked into the Senate candidate’s credit report to get the details on his personal bankruptcies.

Conservatives are no longer giving Steele a pass on those stories. The less faith small- and big-dollar donors have in the RNC, the more valuable they can be to other PACs, which are not being shy about soliciting their support.

“When I fly, I fly coach,” said David Bossie, the chairman of Citizens United and its political PAC, another competitor for small-dollar conservative donors. “We’re not lavish. If you donate to us, you know your money is going right back into the field to support conservative candidates, seeking out people who wouldn’t otherwise get support.”

The Susan B. Anthony List, the American Conservative Union’s PAC and Our Country Deserves Better can all point donors to their low-overheard campaigns in NY-23 or the Massachusetts special election for the U.S. Senate, contrasting those with the performance of the RNC.

The party committee is well aware of its predicament. “The press shop’s about as busy now as it was during the days that Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) suspended his presidential campaign,” groused one conservative strategist who’s worked with the RNC.

The problem for conservatives is that dividing their efforts, and nurturing mistrust in the RNC, might damage the GOP’s 2010 strategy even if competing groups are well funded.

“You’re seeing a lot of small donors, who in other times would be discovering the party committee, going to these PACs instead,” said Anthony Corrallo, a fellow at the Brookings Institution who studies campaign finance. “Large amounts of potential money that the RNC may have been able to attract are now going elsewhere. And you’d rather see money located in the parties — the RNC can do much more coordinated GOTV [get out the vote] and advertising.”

RNC defenders could point the detractors to the left’s experience with divided effort. In 2003, a team of big liberal donors that included George Soros and Peter Lewis founded America Coming Together, spending more than $10 million for GOTV. Because ACT couldn’t coordinate with the Democratic Party or John Kerry’s presidential bid, some of its efforts were wasted. And in 2007, the disbanded group paid a $750,000 fine to the FEC for fundraising violations.

It remains to be seen whether conservatives can avoid a similar fate.

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David Weigel

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