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Is the Republican National Committee finished?

April 1, 2010 |  9:20 am

Tea Party activists at the Utah State Capitol in Salt Lake City March 30, 1020 by AP

Since Michael Steele was elected chairman of the Republican National Committee in January 2009, the once Grand Old Party has suffered a series of gaffes, scandals and other signals of a party in distress. Then the "tea party" activists came to town, further endangering the brand.

The party's problems run on several tracks. For one thing, Steele seems to suffer from foot-in-mouth disease. He predicted on Fox News during primary season that Republicans would not win back the House in November, violating the classic political rule of always talking up expectations. Chagrined by his behavior, big-league contributors have taken their money elsewhere, bypassing the RNC coffers to bolster those of the Republican House and Senate campaign committees.

For another, with reports of Steele's affection for lavish spending -- and the RNC's debacle over expensing a donor's visit to a topless bondage nightclub -- defections are growing. Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, that magnet for Republican dollars, has twice asked the RNC to remove her name from an invitation to its fundraiser in New Orleans in mid-April. And Tony Perkins, who as head of the Family Research Council helped make Christianity a wedge issue in American politics, told supporters to stop donating to the RNC and give their money instead to individual candidates whose values they share.

Now, in a development alarming for the RNC as an institution, a group of Republicans is starting an outside political group to go head-to-head with the RNC for wealthy donors and prominence. American Crossroads hopes to raise $52 million to help Republican candidates this fall. Steven Law is leaving his top post at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce to run the group, and lots of top-name Republicans, such as former RNC chairman Ed Gillespie, are on board.

None of this is to say that Republicans won't have a banner year at the polls in November. These are midterm elections, fraught with danger for any president, and Barack Obama is a lighting-rod figure who provokes tremendous distrust among the conservative base.

Nor is this to suggest that the RNC is the only party of scandal -- in fact, Republicans were busy this week putting out word that the Democratic National Committee also spends lavishly on its donors. Fair enough, though so far no word of bondage clubs.

But for the RNC, the timing of this widespread defection from its base could not be worse. Tea party activists are promoting a different kind of model -- up from the grass roots, and emotional. And the Supreme Court has cleared the way for corporations to play a much larger role in this year's elections, a decision that already limits party influence.

Even Karl Rove sounds worried. In the Wall Street Journal on Thursday morning, George W. Bush's political guru offers the tea party activists some tips on how to keep from becoming a fringe group (which seemed to come down to: stop hanging out with birthers and 9/11 conspiratorialists, and adopt a positive agenda).

The Angry Right is unlikely to take his suggestions -- movements of the heart rarely like hearing from establishment elders about how they should conduct themselves -- but Rove's gratuitous advice does show concern by party regulars about how uncontrollable -- and how destabilizing to the Republican Party's future -- the tea party activists are.

-- Johanna Neuman

Photo: Tea party activists gather in Salt Lake City on Tuesday. Credit: Associated Press

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