WASHINGTON — Katon Dawson, who early last year narrowly lost his bid for the chairmanship of the Republican National Committee, said Wednesday that he's received numerous calls from prominent Republicans concerned by a string of recent controversies tied to the man who beat him, Michael Steele.
Steele, the first black RNC leader and a former Maryland lieutenant governor, has spent the last week dealing with political fallout from news that the party had reimbursed an aide $1,900 for taking a group of young donors to a bondage-themed sex club in West Hollywood, Calif.
Alex Castellanos, a prominent GOP strategist, on Tuesday called on Steele to resign, while Sean Mahoney of New Hampshire gave up his seat on the party's 168-person national committee.
Those moves came after Sam Fox, a major donor to former President George W. Bush, relinquished his post on the RNC's fund-raising committee.
Tony Perkins, the influential head of the Family Research Council, told conservative activists not to donate money to the RNC.
"The RNC is indifferent at best to the concerns of many social conservatives," Perkins said. "The RNC does not reflect the values of the folks we represent across the country."
Dawson, the former head of the South Carolina Republican Party, lost to Steele 91-77 in the sixth round of voting after three other candidates dropped out in the January 2009 intraparty voting for RNC chairman.
Dawson said his GOP contacts around the country are upset by the recent controversies surrounding the national party.
"There is some angst out there and disappointment in the hinterlands," Dawson said.
Steele found himself on the defensive last month when an RNC fundraising document that depicted President Barack Obama as the Joker was made public. The document, from a Florida seminar, depicted House Speaker Nancy Pelosi as Cruella de Vil and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid as Scooby-Doo.
Steele faced earlier criticism over accepting large speaking fees, taking chartered flights, going on a promotional tour for his new book and hosting a lavish retreat in Hawaii.
Dawson, now a GOP political consultant in Columbia, S.C., said the problems tied to Steele's leadership of the RNC have distressed influential Republicans.
"I've been taking calls from my friends around the country," Dawson told McClatchy. "They're from people who have great concern about the Republican Party and also about the future of our country. Those two things are intertwined."
Dawson doubted that there would a formal move to replace Steele, which would require a two-thirds vote by the 168 national committee members, but he said the RNC chairman has little margin left for mistakes.
"I can tell you that the RNC is going to have to be scandal-free from now on," Dawson said. "The membership is just not going to take much more. I don't think there's a lot of room for error coming out of Washington from now until November."
Dawson declined to say he would run against Steele for a new two-year term in intraparty voting next January, but he didn't dispute a media report Wednesday that listed him among likely challengers.
"I can't tell you whether I'll run or not, but I can assure you that it'll be contested," Dawson said.
Doug Heye, an RNC spokesman, said Steele has taken decisive steps to control the group's spending and other problems.
"The chairman has been very swift in his action to place more oversight and greater restrictions on how money is spent at the RNC," Heye said.
Heye said Steele has been making personal calls to RNC committee members and GOP donors to ease their concerns.
"He's tried to reassure donors and committee members that we have put into place not just new guidelines, but also new personnel to make sure our money is spent wisely," Heye said.
Steele forced the ouster Monday of RNC chief of staff Ken McKay. The young aide who led the donors on the outing to the strip club was fired last week.
Heye noted that several prominent Republicans had endorsed Steele in recent days, among them former RNC chairman Ed Gillespie, former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich.
David Bossie, head of Citizens United in Washington, said many of the 600,000 conservative activists in his group were disappointed by Steele's performance.
"I believe he's well-meaning, he's a super guy, a smart guy, incredibly articulate, but sometimes you have to look at the greater good," Bossie said. "By staying in the job, are you doing more harm than leaving? He has to be considering what his options are."
Bossie said the questions around Steele's speaking fees and book deal could have a chilling effect on Republican campaign contributions.
"I don't think it will change any votes, but how it could translate to a negative for us in November is if donors don't open their checkbooks," Bossie said. "That is a very serious concern. At the end of the day, Michael Steele has to get his house in order and move forward in a very aggressive and professional way — or he has to step down."
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