WASHINGTON — Some of the nation's top Republican fundraisers, including Mel Sembler of St. Petersburg, are trying to oust the chairman of the national GOP, saying he has mismanaged finances and threatens the party's chances in the 2012 presidential election.
"I think we'd be in very serious trouble if Michael (Steele) comes back," Sembler said Tuesday. "We're $20 million in the hole, and we've got to dig out of that and still raise all kinds of money."
Sembler is among five former Republican National Committee finance chairmen and another top former GOP official who took the unusual step of writing a letter urging RNC members to pick someone other than Steele in an election Friday.
"We must have a leader who will focus on fundraising, inspiring and supporting the broad base of membership activity in every state party, and articulate a clear message of what we as Republicans must stand for. New leadership is the only way the Republican Party will be successful in electing a Republican president in 2012," reads their letter, which was organized by South Florida fundraiser Al Hoffman and sent to all 186 RNC members.
It's not the first time Sembler, Hoffman and other GOP leaders have taken action. Last summer, they urged other donors to direct money to the National Republican Senatorial Committee instead of the RNC.
And yet, after steering money to a different GOP fundraising account in June, the letter seeking Steele's ouster cites a significant drop in RNC donations as one of the knocks on his leadership.
"A huge majority of our previous donors abandoned the party to switch their support to these other organizations (the Republican Senatorial Committee and related groups), having lost confidence in the current chairman's ability to inspire and convince donors that their money will be held in a sacred trust, not frivolously spent,'' the letter says.
Steele's office did not respond to a request for comment.
Steele, elected two years ago, has pointed to the GOP's success in the November election as reason for his return. But his tenure has been marked with gaffes, and fundraising has lagged behind other Republican arms, such as the National Republican Congressional Committee.
Early last year he predicted that the GOP would not take control of the House (it did) and questioned the war in Afghanistan. Then there was the embarrassing revelation that the RNC reimbursed a staffer for about $2,000 in "meals" at a bondage-themed club in West Hollywood.
Spending under Steele included thousands on private jets and limousines. In Florida, some saw an uncomfortable parallel to Jim Greer, the former head of the Republican Party of Florida who also oversaw a time of lavish spending. Greer was arrested in June on charges of grand theft, money laundering and attempted fraud.
The RNC raised nearly $200 million under Steele, but finished the election with $20 million in debt.
Still, Republicans fared well in November. "My record stands for itself," Steele said during a Jan. 3 debate with the other candidates. "We won."
Steele's competitors are former Michigan GOP chairman Saul Anuzis; former Bush administration official Maria Cino; former RNC general counsel Reince Priebus; and former RNC co-chairwoman Ann Wagner.
Sembler, Hoffman and the others did not say who they prefer. But it was clear that enthusiasm would be lacking if Steele remained.
"I don't see how any of the major donors could give money, much less actively support the party with him at the helm," Hoffman said in an interview.
The other former RNC finance chairmen who signed the letter were Howard Leach of San Francisco; Larry Bathgate of Lakewood, N.J.; and Dwight Schar of Washington. Sam Fox of St. Louis, a former RNC regents chairman, also signed it.
Florida's RNC members are divided.
National committee member Paul Senft of Haines City has committed to supporting Steele — for the first round of balloting. He said his commitment is based on his appreciation for how fairly the RNC treated Tampa during the site-selection process for the 2012 national convention.
Florida GOP chairman John Thrasher is backing Priebus, but will miss the actual vote because he will be in Orlando for the state party's annual meeting where a successor to Thrasher will be elected. Senft plans to cast a Thrasher proxy vote for Priebus and his own for Steele.
National committee member and RNC secretary Sharon Day of Fort Lauderdale is staying neutral, while she focuses on her campaign for RNC co-chairwoman.
Steele is African-American and some feel the GOP could send a poor signal by dumping him. Others suggest a racial bias, though Steele says he has not cited race himself.
"I'm sorry, that's an excuse," Sembler said Tuesday. "We're in business to raise money and deploy the money effectively to elect Republicans. On a personal level, I like Michael Steele. But you've got to go by results."
Times political editor Adam C. Smith contributed to this report.