Reporting from Washington — Donors were restless, candidates were wary and critics were piling on Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele -- and that was before this week's revelation that the committee treated a group of young donors to a nearly $2,000 night out at a risque West Hollywood nightclub.
The club debacle spotlights the growing isolation of the RNC under Steele's tenure. No elected officials have called for Steele's resignation, but few have come to the chairman's defense.
Even as Republican hopes of an electoral renaissance are rising heading into the November elections, the RNC remains bogged down by spending questions that threaten to undermine the party's message of fiscal discipline and distract from its efforts to rebuild party infrastructure.
"We have a historic opportunity to win 48, 50, 52 seats in the House this cycle. We can match the Republican Revolution of 1994," said Ken Blackwell, a conservative activist who lost to Steele last year in a bid for the chairmanship. "But we can't match that historic feat if we're diverting attention to putting out brush fires on bush-league mistakes."
The RNC moved quickly to try to contain the damage while portraying the nightclub dust-up as an isolated incident. It quickly fired a staffer involved in a decision to reimburse a donor for the bill at Voyeur, a club that features performers in bondage and sadomasochistic scenes.
"We are dedicated to the efficient use of RNC funds to ensure as many victories in 2010 as possible," RNC Chief of Staff Ken McKay wrote in a memo to committee members released Tuesday.
Such assurances fight against a stream of bad headlines. In January, Steele said he didn't think his party could take back the House. In February, he faced scrutiny for hosting a meeting at a Hawaiian resort, a move that appeared to some as out of step with recession-era calls for frugality.
The Voyeur expenditure was first reported Monday by the Daily Caller website, which also noted that the RNC spent more than $17,500 on private jet travel in February.
On Wednesday, Tony Perkins, head of the socially conservative Family Research Council, urged his supporters to stop donating to the RNC and instead "give directly to candidates who you know reflect your values," according to an e-mail posted on the council's website.
RNC spokesman Doug Heye said the controversies had been overblown and pointed to the committee's significant investments in state parties and key races. Ahead of off-year elections in 2009, the RNC spent $3 million in New Jersey and $9 million in Virginia, Heye said. Both states saw Republicans take the governor's office.
"That's a pretty good track record," said Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell, who came to Steele's defense this week.
Louis M. Pope, the RNC budget committee chairman, said the committee was ahead of its fundraising goals and had reduced expenditures.
Still, Steele's reputation as a loose spender has some prominent Republican donors putting money elsewhere or withholding it entirely. Republican donors, large and small, are wary of the Washington establishment they blame for big party losses in 2006 and 2008. GOP candidates increasingly are taking note of the anti-Washington ire captured in the "tea party" movement.
"I think most of our people expect this sort of thing," said Jenny Beth Martin, a leader of the online group Tea Party Patriots. "They see it as more politics as usual. . . . When we travel, we put two people per room."