Steele Allies Point Fingers At Rove — Say Former RNC Team Fanning Flames

April 15, 2010 7:11 a.m.

Seems like just about everyone is irritated with Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele these days, but both friends and foes of the embattled party leader think allies of Karl Rove and former Bush-era RNC staffers are fanning the flames to make Steele’s problems worse.

Republicans told me in interviews that Rove’s team got cozy at the RNC during the eight years of the Bush presidency, and feathers were ruffled when Steele was elected and cleaned house. They admitted Steele has dug himself into a deep hole, but the spate of recent death watch stories on national television and gracing the nation’s front pages seemed like a calculated effort to trash the chairman as revenge.

The GOP universe isn’t huge — consultants who worked with the RNC decades ago are bound to pop up again and hop from campaign to campaign. But some people tied to Rove, George W. Bush’s right-hand man, were “badly, badly hurt when Michael came in,” an RNC member told me in an interview. “It’s no surprise he’s got a collection of enemies.”Republicans said that when taking over in 2009, Steele “emptied out the building” of about 100 consultants and top aides who closely coordinated with Rove at the White House from 2001 until President Obama took office. A Republican familiar with the inner-workings of the RNC told me that Steele made a mistake asking for resignations from the old guard so quickly. Had Steele gone “more cautiously” and kept one or two members of the Rove team on board it might have avoided the bad blood, the source said.

“We built in some pretty vocal critics right from the start. It would have been easy to overcome had the chairman not been hit with a gaffe a minute,” the Republican said.

It’s worth a reminder that Rove put the brakes on an effort to elect Steele chairman in 2006. Steele told The Washington Times last year that when elected, Rove did not send congratulations like other former top Bush White House and campaign officials.

The aides who left under Steele’s takeover aren’t household names, and many quickly found work on campaigns across the country or within the other party committees in Washington.

The intra-party spat is even more relevant as Rove and former RNC officials Mike Duncan and Ed Gillespie have formed a new 527 group they say has received pledges worth $30 million from big donors to help with the 2010 elections. Top Republicans annoyed with Steele’s leadership have said groups like the “American Crossroads” 527 might fill a void left during this troublesome period at the RNC.

We tried to reach out to Rove, the American Crossroads group and Bush White House aides who might speak about the story, but have so far been unsuccessful.

The RNC member said few are willing to criticize Rove specifically since he’s still working with hundreds of Republicans nationally, but said it has seemed obvious to Steele allies that it’s the old guard talking smack about the chairman. “When you get a new sheriff and the old guys all know the reporters and they all have an axe to grind, this happens,” the member said.

The Republicans I interviewed said Rove’s team should have known better, since historically this is the way it goes. When a party loses the White House, someone new comes in and makes it their own shop. GOPers say that’s done to signal regime change, not create bad blood. One Republican suggested that since Rove and his crew weren’t as familiar with the pre-Bush Washington he was taken aback by the changes.

“Of course the guy who comes in put his own team in. For anyone to act like that somehow was a horrible thing just completely disregards the history of the place,” the Republican said.

But Steele critics note that some of the fired RNC aides helped run a steady ship for years and could have been useful during this period of turmoil.

Politico also explored this topic recently, with sources telling them that Steele replaced the Rove team with rookies who made the mistakes leading to his problems. Among those, the approval of a reimbursement request for a staffer who spent nearly $2,000 at a bondage-themed Los Angeles night club.

The Politico story said there is grumbling that Steele has brought in his own team from his days in Maryland state politics. It also highlighted that Steele fired Jay Banning, “someone known as a frugal and meticulous bookkeeper,” and replaced him with a pal.

Another big question is what will happen come January. Steele’s allies say he’s definitely planning to seek a second term and we’ve reported about members thinking that Steele may not get fired, but will definitely be toast next year even if the GOP puts big wins on the board in the midterm elections.

A Steele foe thinks the chairman will definitely try for another term, telling me: “He loves being chairman. Even with all the troubles he’s had he loves it.”

An RNC spokesman declined to comment for this story but said the party offers full support for groups like Rove’s new American Crossroads. “Such groups will help all Republicans as we move towards November,” spokesman Doug Heye said.

As if Steele didn’t have enough enemies, some Republicans have suggested the most vocal critics calling for Steele’s ouster are tied to one another. For example, after the nightclub expense mishap, chief of staff Ken McKay was ousted. Curt Anderson, a GOP consultant who helped recruit McKay, followed him out the door. That firm did work in North Carolina for Tom Fetzer, the first RNC member to call for Steele’s ouster last week. Also pals with the group? Alex Castellanos, the strategist who publicly severed ties with Steele on CNN last week.

Those involved say that’s ridiculous since many Republicans work together.

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