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.
The Republicans really think this all about race, don't they? What a bunch of idiots. It's about ideas, inclusion, acceptance. Not tokenism!
Steele was a good choice. He is a very competent guy who has the ability to organize.
Hey! Has anyone seen J.C. Watts?? I hope the Republicans have improved their membership retention program. :)
The Republicans keep doing the same things, remember when you did this in the primaries, lol. We all knew Sarah was not Hillary. You thought oh if it's just about a woman, we can do them one better. Look what happened with that scheme. Obama is now , President Obama. Now here we go again thinking Oh is it a black face they want we can give them that. Silly kids tricks are for kids. LOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOL
Those calling this pick race related are so two faced. Keep it up. It shows you for who you are.
I WONDER WHAT THE RED NECKS ARE SAYING NOW. MR STEELE, THEY WILL NEVER ACCEPT YOU. YOU ARE NOTHING BUT A MANEQUIN FOR THESE FOLKS. DON'T BE A FOOL.
I NEVER liked Michael Steele...still don't. He obviously has the same "issues" as Clarence Thomas. If the GOP think he is the one to change the image and direction of their party they are in deeper than they know.
"Free your mind and your *** will follow". If their thinking does not change they will remain in the wilderness...praying for the death of their enemies. (any one different from them)
As a black female, I hope Mr. Steele brings more to the Republican party than his race. It would be step in the right direction.
michelle January 30th, 2009 4:40 pm ET
"I think he was only picked because of Barack Obama"
please continue your logic to its conclusion:
….and Barak Obama was picked because_______________
(hint: he mentioned this repeatedly in his speeches)
Well, I'm African American. Maybe I should run for second in command of the RNC...probably will get it in this climate...
The only racism being displayed is not by the RNC, it's the posters who are claiming the Republicans trotted Steele out there to appear non-racist!! Steele wanted this badly, and campaigned and went after the position. He is not a false front put out there by Republicans trying to fool people. He would have been the best person for the job even if Hillary had been elected president! Go post somewhere else like HuffPo where your asinine comment will be appreciated...
For a Republican, Steele is not as extreme as most. I think it is an interesting pick and I give the Republicans kudos on this one.
It will be interesting to see how the party rallies around him and what this will mean for the Republicans in 2010.
Obama supporters: This is the Republicans' day. Let them have it. But if they start obstructing again, we get to hammer them again.
Sorry, I meant to say: And you republicans don't think Obama represents CHANGE. What say you now?
Basically every comment citing Steele as a token black man is racism. I hope you morons realize that.
As a conservative from the south I am absolutely overjoyed with the Michael Steele to head the RNC. It is not about the face of a blackman in the ledership that wins elections, but about deep and sincere love for all Americans despite the race or color. Steele's choice is real! The Republican party got it right this time.
As a conservative from the South I am really pleased that Mr. Steele was elected. He'll do a great job because he's qualified!
Just a little late don't you think? I BET if Obama did not get elected, Steele would NOT be the "One"...Pandering. Too late Repubs...
is this guy an Indian?
He's the new Sarah Palin, the new puppet, they are going to use him, and throw out to the dogs, just like Sarah Palin
They chose Sarah Palin to steal the Hillary Clinton supporters, didnt work,
Now they have this dude, why, he is a uncle tom
It's a shame when a blackman does not realize when he's being used. Michael Steele is a TOKEN for the GOP. So what is Steele going to do when his racist party run racist ads doing elections time or when one of them send out something like ( Barack the Magic Negro ), do you truly think those hard core racist Rethugs, Neo-Cons are going to think about their Chair leader who happens to be black, ( HELL NO ). We elect our first black President so they think African Americans are going to jump on the Rethugs wagon, ( NO ), b/c 98% of African Americans knows that the Rethugs are full of a bunch of racist, bigots and hateful whitemen. So TOKEN man GOOD LUCK b/c you're going to need it.
GOP, When are you going to show GOOD SPORTSMANSHIP.
Earlier, for HILLARY you brought in PALIN.
Now, for BARACK you brought in STEELE.
Can you Please stop this SILLY POLITICS, and REALLY DO SOMETHING GOOD FOR OUR COUNTRY.
GOP is WORST THAN TERRORISTS who WANT TO HARM USA.
@ David in Colorado – what???
And you support OBama, someone who intimidates through "community activists....thug actions...puts down this country....I think you need to reevaluate what it takes to be an American. Anyone voting for Obama obviously just wanted a handout...
I don't know anything about him, but I certainly hope he is NOT a moderate. We need a very conservative leader right now. God bless you, Mr. Steele, and please be that leader. McCain is proof that nobody is interested in a moderate.
Must be the year of the black person! Oh, wait, I forgot, Obama isn't black, he's biracial. He just ran as a black person to secure the black vote because then anyone who disagrees with him will be called a racist. LOL! Funny how those blacks who NEVER BOTHERED TO VOTE BEFORE jumped on this bandwagon. Ha! Ha!
I would also add:
I guess it doesn't matter what color you are when you are hiding behind a white hood...