The GOP's Dirty Sexy Money

Wooing donors at a strip club: It's just the latest Republican National Committee scandal that could cost Michael Steele his job. Conor Friedersdorf on why it's foolish to give money to the party.

Steven Senne / AP Photo

Traveling by private plane: $17,514.

A visit to a Beverly Hills hotel: $9,099.

Hanging at a “bondage-themed nightclub” where topless dancers imitate lesbian sex: $1,946.25.

Getting the Republican Party to pick up the tab?


The Republican National Committee covered all these expenses, the Washington D.C.- based Web magazine The Daily Caller reports in an investigation that draws on FCC filings and interviews. “Why did the committee spend more than $17,000 on private jets in the month of February? Why was RNC business conducted in a bondage-themed nightclub?” the site’s editor, Tucker Carlson, asked. “We still know almost nothing about that trip, including its purpose. If the RNC provides details, we’ll put them on the site immediately.”

Barring an unexpectedly stellar GOP performance at the polls this November, I predict Steele will be replaced long before the 2012 campaign.

In a response, the RNC said that its chairman, Michael Steele, wasn’t personally at the topless club, that the GOP will be reimbursed for that particular expense, and that it is investigating the matter (apparently the folks who rubber-stamped the expense at the RNC offices weren’t paying enough attention to be wary of a bill from a place called Voyeur West Hollywood).

Which Party Has More Sex Scandals? A followup item at The Daily Caller reports that hefty bar tab “was part of a night of cultivating young Republican donors.”

Isn’t it fun to imagine how that works? “Hey guy, sorry to call at dinner time, but remember that really important congressional race I mentioned a few months ago while we were doing Patron shots and watching simulated lesbian sex? Well, it turns out we could really use your support on that one… Oh yeah, I’m sure about the candidate, he’s fiscally and socially conservative… No you can’t stuff the check down his boxer briefs… Oh, yeah, I knew you were joking. Ha ha.”

The conventional wisdom on this story is partly correct, in that the minor scandal is yet another misstep presided over by Chairman Steele. Will his questionable leadership prevent the GOP from capitalizing on 2010? History suggests the opposition party performs well in mid-term elections, and especially when the economy is bad, but a mismanaged RNC could lessen the party’s gains, especially if there’s insufficient money for tight races. In fact, barring an unexpectedly stellar GOP performance at the polls this November, I predict Steele will be replaced long before the 2012 campaign.

I’m less sure about the objection articulated by Douglas MacKinnon, a former press secretary to Majority Leader Bob Dole. “If you are giving a political party your hard-earned money, you should have no doubts that it is going to be spent as advertised and not to provide a spoiled, egocentric, out-of-touch chairman with frivolous luxuries which are out of reach of the vast majority of the American people,” he told The Huffington Post.

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Oh, come on, let’s be frank. A lot of big-money donors to both political parties are motivated by factors other than civic-mindedness. It is hardly surprising that affluent men can be successfully courted by a culture whose social events afford access to limousines, gatherings at pricey hotels and occasional afterparties with scantily clad women. Or that the RNC couldn’t attract these donors if they held social gatherings at Quality Inn banquet rooms in what Sarah Palin calls “real America.” It’s indefensible, yes, but so is the whole world of partisan political operatives. You’ve heard of Jack Abramoff and farm subsidies, and a $2,000 expenditure on voyeurism is suddenly turning you cynical?

If you are a small donor giving a political party your hard-earned money, you should know your contribution may be used to raise additional money from people who aren’t like you and don’t share your values, but that’s the least of the questionable causes you’re bankrolling. Strip clubs are a bit extreme. They didn’t think that receipt would raise eyebrows?

But take a look at the reviews of the venue on Yelp. If you can read past the salacious ones, like “beware of the ladies hanging above you in nets—they whip the occasional unsuspecting drunkie,” you’ll realize that this wasn’t primarily about sex.

“I can say this place is full of nothing but incredibly attractive women, rich guys, and celebrities,” one Yelp user writes. “Voyeur is very very exclusive and unless you’re an 8 or above, ladies, or willing to get bottle service (2 bottles =$1,100) fellas, be prepared to be turned away.”

The last time I wrote about the RNC, I noted a secret GOP presentation that asserted the party’s big-money donors are motivated by status seeking and ego. Being an Orange County, California, native, I can report that the typical GOP donor is a successful entrepreneur giving on principle or else to gain access and influence public policy.

But this other big-shot political donor archetype will nonetheless survive. He’s a wealthy guy who enjoys clubs with red velvet ropes, the approval of arrogant bouncers, and table service, that most reliable indicator of socially insecure embarrassments.

The description probably doesn’t fit everyone who attended Voyeur that night. Maybe the leader of the group just accommodated one guy’s drunken suggestion. As for everyone else, who wouldn’t tag along for strippers paid for by the Republican Party? I don’t even like strip clubs, and I’d have a hard time passing up that invitation, if only as a hilarious story. But among folks who require persistent courting to join the GOP’s donor rolls, VIP strivers are common enough to persuade me that it’s foolhardy to funnel money through RNC middlemen, or anyone else.

Like a conservative candidate? Give him or her money. Favor a specific legislative change? Donate to a targeted campaign.

But keep your money away from the Republican Party and most established organs of movement conservatism. The corruption of these entities isn’t just depressingly common, it’s inevitable. It’s time to stop enabling an ideological apparatus that pretends to abhor coastal elites, even while using their finest faux lesbian strip clubs as recruiting venues.

Principled donors who still haven’t figured that out only have themselves to blame.

Conor Friedersdorf blogs at True/Slant and The American Scene. Follow him on Twitter at Conor64.