Michael Steele was picked Friday to be the RNC's first African-American chairman. (Photo Credit: Getty Images/File)
WASHINGTON (CNN) - Members of the Republican National Committee elected their first-ever African-American party chief on Friday, choosing former Maryland Lt. Gov. Michael Steele to chair the organization after six tumultuous rounds of voting.
Watch: 'It's time for something completely different,' says Steele
The often contentious race for the chairmanship came down to a choice on the final ballot between Steele and Katon Dawson, the South Carolina GOP chairman who secured strong support from party insiders after former RNC leader Mike Duncan dropped out of the race earlier in the day.
Steele emerged as the winner on the sixth ballot, earning 91 votes to Dawson's 77.
"We're going to say to friend and foe alike, we want you to be a part of us," Steele told party members in his victory speech. "And to those of you who will obstruct, get ready to get knocked over."
For the duration of his campaign, Steele fought suspicions that he was too moderate to lead the party because of his blue state roots and his former membership in the Republican Leadership Council, a group that sought to curb the influence of social conservatives in the party.
"I'm proud to say I'm a conservative, have been, always will be," Steele told CNN earlier this month. "So this notion that I'm a moderate is slightly overblown, and quite frankly a lie."
Steele was similarly hampered by the perception that he was too much of an outsider to run the 168-member party, but he was able to demonstrate momentum in the final days of the campaign by rolling out a cluster of endorsements.
He also boasted the help of some of the country's top political consultants: At a closed-door question-and-answer session with members late Thursday, Steele told the crowd he had spent over $200,000 on the race, more than any other contender.
The new chairman brings a national profile to the committee, having shot to fame in the political world during an underdog Senate bid in 2006 distinguished by a series of clever TV commercials. He has since become a fixture on cable talk shows, experience that boosted his reputation as the most able communicator in the field of candidates.
During the Republican National Convention in St. Paul last summer, Steele made a splash by coining the phrase "Drill, baby, drill!," which quickly morphed into a rallying cry for the GOP base at campaign rallies around the country.
After Friday's final vote, Steele assembled a press conference and told reporters that the GOP needs to fix their "image problem" by focusing on "issues that touch the fabric of people's lives."
"We have been mis-defined as a party that doesn't care, a party that's insensitive, a party that is unconcerned about minorities, a party that is unconcerned about the lives and the expectations and dreams of average Americans," Steele said. "Nothing could be further from the truth."
Steele promised that the party will be run as a bottom-up organization and that the RNC will be "moved into the grassroots." But he offered few specifics on his plans to re-structure the party, saying only that he hopes to get fresh ideas from state parties.
"My expectation is that they're going to come to me with a plan, a strategy," he said of the states.
Steele's victory capped off a tumultuous day that saw six arduous rounds of voting and an acknowledgment of defeat from Duncan, who stepped aside after the third ballot, having bled support throughout the voting process.
"Obviously the winds of change are blowing here at the RNC," Duncan told party members, who gave him a standing ovation.
On the fourth ballot of the day, with many members no longer having to consider their loyalty to Duncan, Dawson rocketed into the lead with 62 votes, putting him ahead of Steele's 60.
But Dawson's short burst of momentum was blunted minutes later when former Ohio Secretary of State Ken Blackwell quit the race and surprised the audience by throwing his support behind Duncan. On the subsequent ballot, Steele picked up 19 votes while Dawson gained just seven.
Michigan GOP chairman Saul Anuzis, whose support topped out at 31 votes, dropped out after the fifth round of voting but did not endorse a candidate. Most of his supporters then backed Steele in the final vote.
Good for Steele.
It's about time we have a REAL leader, Good luck Mr. Steele
I'm pleased with this selection.
I think he was only picked because of Barack Obama
Mr Steele, the country has spoke in moderation. If you insist on your conservatism, then the republican party just made a huge mistake. You are not what they need to help their party win over anyone but a very few African Americans that feel the same way you do, and their aren't many. The number of whites that will abandon the party because of your skin color will be astounding.
please give the man is due He won a free and fair GOP chair and I think he will to a good job.good luck Mr. steel
And cue the Republican bashing.
"They only picked him because of Obama", "They're just trying to take away from Obama's historic presidency", blah blah blah.
Can you imagine if Steele hadn't been picked? Oh what cries of racism we would hear from left!
Does this mean the GOP is hip now? This is hilarious. I believe you all have missed the point.
The Palin PICK TRICK didn't work and NEITHER WILL THIS "STEELE" PICK TRICK!!!!
"I think he was only picked because of Barack Obama"
Yeah right... and how about Collin Powell and Condi Rice..? Because of Jesse Jackson..?
After how many ballots? Doesn't seem like he starts with much of a mandate. Does race matter? Time will tell. Take a look at the pictures of the electors ... still looks like the GOP Convention – awfully white.
Real Leader? Give me the specifics, please, not just grand generalities. You can not continue to preach hatred and division, offer only blame rather than solutions: The GOP can not ignore its own failures over the past decade.
The RNC web page, as of today, was bragging about how strong the economy is; how GOP policies have contributed to economic growth and job creation: how much more out of touch can this group be – or do I really want to know?
The Republicans want to go back to basics? Which are? I'm afraid while the GOP was waiting at the train station, the rest of the country is at the air port and moving into the future. You can not put the genie of progress back into the bottle: The poor are not content to quietly go away and die anymore and women are used to voting.
You can change the face of the party but the policies are the same. They need to change their policies!!!
Hope he really is a moderate. And glad he's not big on social conservatism.
Laid off yesterday, boat builder in Seattle Wa.
Search Utube, Reich,Rangel, Non-white construction workers
Non-white construction workers????
Am I excluded as a white person and a construction journeyman from a stimulus that my tax dollars help to fund?
I voted for change, I voted for unity……if I am excluded, if I lose my house …..
I'm ready to move on and begin impeachment on this new guy right now!
Please help, open a discussion to understand what Rangel and Reich are talking about.
Sincerely, a friend, a supporter, a contributer, An American citizen, tax-payer, stimulus plan funder,…. laid off proffessional
I am happy for him personally and he is a good man. However, it is OBVIOUS why he was picked. Sorry. That party is in serious trouble-and if they think a black face makes a difference, I hate to tell them, it doesn't.......
Wonderful! It's time to reemerge as the party of America's true ideals, and bring us back to those ideals! Good luck Mr. Steele!
Let's see if he gets on his knees for rush like the rest of RNC.
Probably a saavy move for the RNC. They needed to move away from the image they'd created for themselves. The Dems better stay on their game or else the GOP will be back with Democratic ideas repackaged as GOP ideas. But that is how politics works in the US, and we'll all be better off if the GOP move in the right direction, too.
Not buying it, the just did this because of Obama and they want to try and get minority vites by having a minority leader.
It does not matter. This is just window dressing.
The GOP is still the racist party in my eyes.
No surprise here. Steele is a documented homophobe. And now he represents the republican party. Wake me when the GOP finally self implodes.
Can you say "Uncle Tom"?
Congratulations to the New Party Chief. Looks like some people on this blog are running scared already.
President Obama is quickly proving he is not an agent of change, just the Same Old Politics as Usual.
You're an idiot. Michael Steele has been a leader in the republican party longer than Obama was a senator. I realize that doesn't have to be very long. And at least every third word out of Steele's mouth is uh, uh, uh.....