September 24th, 2010
05:30 AM ET
13 years ago

Steele's bus tour draws crowds, but also critics

(CNN) - If all goes according to plan, the Republican National Committee's "Fire Pelosi!" bus tour will carry Chairman Michael Steele to a photo-op at Mount Rushmore, a Denver fundraiser with NFL quarterback Tim Tebow and an event with Arab-Americans in heavily-Democratic Dearborn, Michigan.

The road trip, which kicked off last week to much fanfare at RNC headquarters in Washington and concludes on Oct. 29 in Steele's home state of Maryland, features 143 stops in 117 cities across the continental United States.

But crucially, according to a confidential itinerary of the tour provided to CNN by a Republican source, the bus will be spending almost half its time in congressional districts that are not in play this fall.

Of the 106 candidates Steele is tentatively scheduled to appear with during the trip, 43 are running in districts not listed as "competitive" by two separate nonpartisan political handicappers, Charlie Cook and Stuart Rothenberg.

The coast-to-coast tour has prompted charges from Steele's foes that the chairman is more focused on getting face-time with committee members than winning back majorities in November. One RNC member, speaking on the condition of anonymity, went so far as to dub the trip "the Michael Steele re-election tour."

And in a week when the RNC reported having $4.7 million remaining in its war chest entering September, compared to the Democratic National Committee's $13.4 million, questions are being raised about whether the trip is the best use of tight committee resources at a pivotal moment for the GOP.

"The Republican National Committee ought to be exclusively focused on voter turnout in competitive districts right now, period," said Republican strategist Jim Dyke, a former RNC communications director who helped run Steele's campaign for chairman. "And that's all they ought to be doing."

One Republican state party chair was more blunt and called the trip "a colossal waste of time."

"We cannot adequately fund our victory programs, and he's out there spending a hundred grand or more on a bus tour," complained the chair, speaking anonymously out of concern of retribution from committee leadership. "I don't see it moving the needle in any race. That money would be better spent on a targeted congressional race."

The RNC is pushing back hard against those claims, noting that the chairman has made it a priority since taking office in January 2009 to pay attention to districts, candidates and regions traditionally ignored by the national party structure.

"I know it's great to generate interest in these districts that are really close, but I'm all for him going into these districts that aren't so competitive," said Illinois GOP Chairman Pat Brady, a Steele ally who will welcome the bus to his state on Oct. 14 and 15. "We are not going to win in the long term just by campaigning in the districts we need to win this fall."

The trip is costing less than half of the chairman's total travel budget for the rest of the year, RNC spokesman Doug Heye said. He noted that Steele is also making stops to meet with big GOP donors such as Denver millionaire Larry Mizel and Tampa developer Al Austin.

Heye said the committee is focused on get-out-the-vote efforts and will have made 14 million voter contacts by the end of this week. He also said the RNC has opened 333 victory offices throughout the country, including one in Syracuse, New York, a ribbon-cutting attended by former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.

Prominent GOP figures like Romney, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie are listed throughout the "Fire Pelosi!" itinerary as "potential guests" who may join Steele at different events along the bus route.

At recent stops, however, several of the listed potential guests - including Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell, South Carolina gubernatorial candidate Nikki Haley and Florida Senate candidate Marco Rubio - did not materialize, each citing scheduling conflicts.

Two GOP chairmen in states Steele has already visited, Virginia and North Carolina, also were no-shows.

Other Republican luminaries, like Texas Gov. Rick Perry and Arkansas Senate hopeful John Boozman, said they have no plans to show up for the bus tour despite being listed on the schedule.

Multiple state party officials have privately characterized the RNC's trip planning as haphazard and last minute, in some cases interfering with previously scheduled campaign events.

"They didn't consult with us about the politics of the tour," one state Republican Party official told CNN.

Heye stressed that the tour schedule obtained by CNN is "a working document that's a month old."

"A lot of it may not happen," he said. "A lot of these potential guests haven't been reached out to."

The bus is making stops in dozens of marquee House battlegrounds, places like New Hampshire's 1st and 2nd districts, Florida's 8th district, Wisconsin's 7th district and Arizona's 1st district.

Many of the candidates Steele is set to campaign with, though, are incumbents facing only token Democratic opposition this year, like Texas Rep. Michael McCaul, Indiana Rep. Dan Burton and Florida Rep. Gus Bilirakis.

Others appearing on the itinerary are Republican shoo-ins such as Tim Scott in South Carolina's 1st district and James Lankford in Oklahoma's 5th district, each of whom are getting not one but two appearances from the chairman.

Then there are Republicans running in strongly Democratic districts with little hope of winning in November.

Among those appearing with Steele, according to the itinerary: South Carolina's Jim Pratt, mounting a next-to-impossible campaign against House Minority Whip Jim Clyburn, and long-shot African-American Republicans like Star Parker in California's 37th district and Marvin Scott in Indiana's 1st district.

Heye said it's inevitable that a nationwide bus tour would feature stopovers in some districts that aren't being targeted by national Republicans. "If you're driving from one place to another and there's a place to stop and hold a rally, sometimes you're stopping to hold a rally because of geography," he said.

Steele's backers add that such visits are hitting big city media markets - like Chicago, Los Angeles, Indianapolis and Detroit - that bleed into more competitive House districts and could give a boost to GOP candidates in down-ballot legislative races.

The stops also give the chairman, known for his bomb-throwing speaking style, a chance to fire up GOP activists who are volunteering their time to dial voters from victory centers.

Judging by videos of rowdy tour events posted on YouTube, and the scads of local media attention the bus has generated as it moves from town to town, Steele's trip has been a success on that front.

And in two recent cases, the bus tour forced Democratic candidates Sanford Bishop in Georgia and Steve Raby in Alabama to distance themselves from Pelosi, the House speaker, when pressed by local reporters.

Steele has been emailing periodic dispatches from the road to the entire 168-member committee, boasting about the grassroots energy he's seeing on the road and naming the committee members with whom he is meeting.

"Our Victory Center in Rock Hill was, well, rocking!," Steele wrote in one such message, obtained by CNN, from South Carolina on Day 3 of the tour. "Chairman Karen Floyd and [National Committeeman] Glenn McCall joined us on the bus as we pulled up to over 100 enthusiastic and fired up volunteers and activists."

Steele is fresh off unprecedented visits to Puerto Rico, Guam, American Samoa the Northern Marianas, the Virgin Islands - territories with RNC delegates but no voting representation in Congress. Steele won the chairman's race in 2009 with their decisive bloc of votes, and his travel to the islands sparked accusations that he is already whipping up votes for a re-election bid next January.

Several of Steele's critics on the committee grumbled to CNN that the chairman is leveraging the bus tour for that same purpose.

"The RNC chairmanship is all about relationships with members, the backslapping, the closed-door meetings," said one committee member, who spoke freely on the condition of anonymity. "He is out there, one-on-one, meeting with every member of the committee. He will meet with probably 120 or more of the 168 members one-on-one, all paid for by the RNC, in the next 30 days."

Not so, said Heye.

"The bus tour is focused on one thing: firing Nancy Pelosi," he said.

Filed under: 2010 • Michael Steele • RNC
soundoff (6 Responses)
  1. dont care what you Demoncrates say

    I would like to thank Obama for destroying and killing the American Dream for so many people.

    September 24, 2010 07:00 am at 7:00 am |
  2. dont care what you Demoncrates say

    It is time for all Americans, rednecks to jews to whites and blacks alike to stop the madness of Reid, Pelosi and wanna be vacationing Obama and TAKE BACK AMERICA from these idiots. Its WE THE PEOPLE, not we the congress, WE THE PEOPLE CONTROL our own destiny so its time to kick them all out NOW!!!

    September 24, 2010 07:03 am at 7:03 am |
  3. dont care what you Demoncrates say

    Of course it draws critics, the critics are the ones who live on welfare and want the Govt to support them, just like food stamps like our congress, senators and house of REps, do nothing and get raises and paid for playing with them selves, they couldnt work a single day for me, because they do not know how to work all they can do is cheat the American people, I would have FIRED you long ago, our elected officials all the way to the president are nothing but a waste of flesh. Get rid of them.

    September 24, 2010 07:10 am at 7:10 am |
  4. Republicans Are The American Taliban

    "If you're driving from one place to another and there's a place to stop and hold a rally, sometimes you're stopping to hold a rally because of geography," he said.

    He should follow Republican tradition and hold rallies with locals in highway rest stops and airport restrooms...

    September 24, 2010 08:01 am at 8:01 am |
  5. Mollybee

    Right. Fire Pelosi and replace her with a Palin, Bachman, Malkin, Brewer, O'Donnell or Angel. What a joke. The Republican Party failed ordinary Americans tremendously and they think we will let them our of the hole in two years? Never gonna happen,

    September 24, 2010 08:20 am at 8:20 am |
  6. Peter E

    Steele has been the single least effective GOP chairman of the past half century. The best way he can help republicans is by resigning! There isn't a single statement this guy has said that he didn't have to retract or explain away within 24 hours, with an apology to Rush Limbaugh of course. He criticizes republicans who 'apologize' too much, and yet that's all he ever does. He apologizes constantly to Rush Limbaugh for not consulting the great conservative patriarch before he opens his mouth.

    September 24, 2010 08:20 am at 8:20 am |