For a major fundraiser
in Idaho's toniest enclave last weekend, the state's Idaho Republican Party called in heavy reinforcements from Washington, D.C. But as Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele
took the podium on Friday at an opulent base lodge of the Sun Valley ski resort, most of the state's highest-ranking elected Republicans
were not in the audience.
For Chairman Steele, the event was an opportunity to score political points against the Obama administration
and Idaho Democratic Congressman Walt Minnick,
who is vying to be just the third Democrat from this state to win congressional reelection since 1962. But it also gave Steele a chance to mend fences within his own party following a series of spectacular spending scandals earlier this year.
The visit was part of a western trip that had Steele skipping to Billings, Mont., to speak with Republicans there on Saturday. Meanwhile, in what has been described by the Idaho Republican Party as a "complete and total coincidence," Rush Limbaugh was also in Sun Valley on Friday, attending a wedding. According to the Idaho GOP, the two men did not meet during their time in the state.
The Idaho event was hosted by Earl Holding, Sinclair Oil owner
and America's 93rd
-richest individual, at his historic Sun Valley resort. The $25-general-admission "social summit" followed an earlier $500 private VIP reception with Steele. According to Idaho Republican Party Finance Director Anabel Manchester, the main event's turnout of roughly 250 people was better than expected.
Guest speakers included nationally syndicated conservative radio host Dennis Prager (via video
-chat) and a fiery stand-up act by conservative comedian Eric Golub,
who writes "The Tygrrrr Express" blog. Golub, who said he wants a return to civility in politics, opened with a joke about the Boise State University Broncos recruiting Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano to play defensive tackle. He then pleaded with Gen. David Petraeus to "stop being so nice" to President Obama
Steele's rhetorical tactics began before his speech with a comment to Boise conservative radio host Austin Hill. Discussing the BP oil spill
in the Gulf of Mexico, Steele sounded off on a recent comment by Sen. Chris Dodd
(D-Conn.), which suggested that former president George W. Bush
shared blame for the spill.
"You have some numb nuts in Congress
trying to blame Bush for this. Stop the blaming. At some point you become a leader and you take ownership," Steele said in reference to Dodd's comments on the Don Imus
Steele was a high-profile speaker for Ketchum, a resort town, but a poor showing from Idaho's senior GOP officials was a reminder of the chairman's continued struggles in gaining the confidence of ranking Republicans. Absent from Friday's event were Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter and Lt. Gov. Brad Little (annual trail ride), Sen. Mike Crapo (committee meetings on Capitol Hill
) and Rep. Mike Simpson (missed his flight). The Idaho Republican Party explained the absences as the result of a scheduling crunch that will have the entire party gathered next weekend in Idaho Falls.
"There are many things that can hurt America," Risch said. "Al Qaeda
, Iran, North Korea, the Taliban -- they can all hurt us. But they can't destroy us. This [Obama] Administration can destroy us," he said to enthusiastic applause.
Following Risch, Idaho Republican Party Chairman Norm Semanko, a classmate of Steele's at Georgetown Law, introduced his old friend.
Steele opened with the light-hearted street lingo that has endeared him to some Republicans while offending others, mainly minority conservatives
"Wassup, Idaho?! Brother came and helped you out!" the former Maryland lieutenant governor said to the all-white, and largely white-haired, audience. Turning to 67-year-old Risch next, he said, "What-up, baby?" and elicited a round of nervous giggles.
Countless commentators have poked fun at Steele's linguistic jujitsu. And while some worry that the chairman could alienate conservative black voters, there were no minorities at the Idaho event to offend. Steele's forced slang scored points instead by offering his party's dwindling demographic the illusion of inclusion in an increasingly multi-ethnic society.
Upon close inspection, many of Steele's historic public gaffes
look less like mistakes and more like strategy. In January, when he swore honesty to Fox News host Sean Hannity with the old saying, "Honest Injun," the predictably politically-correct howls from the left sounded, well, predictable, and Steele emerged intact.
Steele's reign at the RNC has been damaged most significantly not by verbal slips, but by scandalous expense disclosures. This spring, reports showed the RNC chairman had spent $35,000 of donor money on luxury hotels and $17,000 on private cross-country jet flights. And in a public relations nightmare that Fox News dubbed a "lesbian bondage fiasco," RNC staffers reported charging $1,946.25 at Voyeur, a topless West Hollywood nightclub. Rebounding from these infamous junkets, Steele's presentation in Idaho may have signaled a renewed seriousness as November, and his own future, hangs in the balance.
Friday's event opened with a short speech by Bob Bergdahl, who spoke on behalf of his son, Pfc. Bowe Bergdahl, the American soldier who grew up near Sun Valley and who was captured by the Taliban one year ago next week. The traditional MIA-POW shrine, an empty table set for one with a white cloth and a lone rose, stood in front of the podium as Bergdahl spoke about the complexities of his military sacrifice, not just his own family's, but that of military families in all nations, including Taliban parents that have lost sons to U.S. missile strikes.
Bergdahl's speech moved several audience members to tears, and when it was Steele's turn to speak, he pivoted on the missing soldier's emotional, and political, impact.
"We are with Bowe," Steele said. "We appreciate the sacrifice of the mother and the father watching their son go off to war. We appreciate it," he said. "But I don't believe this administration -- or its ilk -- appreciate the sacrifice."
After the speech, Steele elaborated that the Obama administration's beliefs are "not consistent with that sacrifice."
For all the distractions that have characterized Steele's time as head of the RNC, his Idaho stop revealed that the man who Jon Stewart once likened to a jive-talking Muppet can also be a ruthless political operator.
To Idaho Republicans, who dominate every wing and office of state government, freshman Democrat Rep. Walt Minnick is a glaring exception to one-party rule. In 2008, Minnick won his seat with little more than a one percent victory over unpopular state legislator Bill Sali. This November, Minnick faces Raul Labrador, a social conservative whose May 25 upset over establishment-favorite Vaughn Ward will carry momentum into summer campaigning.
Against this backdrop, Steele's speech was ultimately a rallying cry to Idaho Republicans looking to take back a seat that most feel rightfully belongs to them.