Will wounded RNC Chairman Michael Steele cost the GOP this fall? While there's often lots of drama that comes with the job of a national committee chairman, it doesn't always mean disaster.
Take 2006, when then-DCCC Chairman Rahm Emanuel let everyone know just how much he detested DNC Chair Howard Dean's "50-state strategy." In the end, of course, their disagreements didn't stop Democrats from posting huge gains that fall.
While the media has been obsessed with the fallout surrounding Steele's latest high-profile flub, the handful of GOP strategists I spoke with last week -- all of whom have experience at one of the GOP party committees on their resume, and most of whom are working with House and Senate candidates this year -- weren't panicked.
If groups like American Crossroads and the U.S. Chamber are giving air cover to GOP candidates, the RNC should be focusing on the ground game.
Sure, they worried that these scandals could impact the RNC's ability to attract donors. But they didn't seem concerned that Republican candidates would be overwhelmingly outspent. More important, they see that the political environment is already tilting so solidly in their direction that it will take more than a strip club scandal to take them off course.
The other reason these folks aren't having heart palpitations about the RNC is that the two other campaign committees, which traditionally count on the RNC to help fill their coffers, are in much better shape than they've been in the recent past. At this point in 2008, the RNC had a towering $26 million advantage over the DNC in cash on hand ($31 million to $5 million). But the NRCC and the NRSC were getting totally walloped by their counterparts. In April of 2008, the DCCC had $44 million in the bank compared to just $7 million for the NRCC. On the Senate side, the DSCC had $37 million in cash compared to just $17 million at the NRSC.
This year, the DSCC and DCCC still have more cash than their GOP counterparts, but the margin is much smaller. The DCCC has a $13 million cash advantage ($19 million to $6 million), while the DSCC's advantage is just $2 million ($14 million to $12 million).
There is also the feeling among some that newly created independent 527 groups will, in the words of one strategist, "fix some of the problem" with the RNC. Already, two Bush-era strategists, former RNC Chairman Ed Gillespie and former White House adviser Karl Rove, have found success in picking off wealthy GOP donors to help fund their American Crossroads 527. They expect to raise over $60 million to help fund House and Senate contests this year.
While groups like these succeed in running multimillion-dollar ad campaigns, they often don't attend to not-so-glamorous areas such as absentee ballot programs and get-out-the-vote efforts that can be the difference between winning and losing. The RNC's biggest success in recent years wasn't TV ads, but the 72-hour program that was credited with turning out a record number of GOP voters in 2002 and 2004.
But given that the two people most closely associated with this program were Gillespie and Rove, one has to assume that they are taking this sort of thing into consideration. Moreover, they are smart enough to know which states and congressional districts are the top targets. Unlike outside groups with ideological axes to grind, these guys are (theoretically) committed solely to electing GOP candidates. And they don't have to jump through bureaucratic hoops or endure the media microscope like Steele and the RNC have to.
There was already some grumbling among GOP insiders that the RNC wasn't attending enough to GOTV in the first place. If groups like American Crossroads and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce (which has also pledged to spend over $50 million on House and Senate contests), are giving air cover to GOP candidates, it stands to reason that the RNC should be focusing all of its time and money on the ground game.
One risk of "outsourcing" committee tasks to independent groups is the potential for last-minute problems and opportunities to fall through the cracks. Outside groups are focused on a finite and defined universe of contests, while the party committees are the ones responsible for covering every race in the country. They are the ones who are looking beyond the obvious contests to make sure they aren't missing signs of trouble in "safe" races. This is a pretty thankless job, not unlike, say the director of Homeland Security. No one will ever know how many really bad things they've stopped from happening. But we all know when they fall short.
If this were a year when the playing field was level, Steele's troubles would be a bigger problem. Instead, the sagging economy continues to boost GOP chances at picking up seats, even if the RNC has less money in its own coffers.