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.
Yes...Barack Obama has opened the doors for many, but make no mistake, Mr. Steel is republican. I am so very proud that the RNC is attempting to make a change. Let's not doubt or criticize...but to encourage. At the very least, we will never hear Michael Steele call the president the "Magical Negroe" as others vying for the chairman position has done.
We see through this. The only reason they elected a black man was to seem mainstream or modern. Still a bunch of stingy, racist, confrontational morons.
MIchelle I agree with you 100%
He's nothing but a token. If we didn't have a black Democratic president, he wouldn't have been considered. The RNC is saying "Hey, we have one too!"
How is he a real leader? He's never been elected to any public office, except as a running mate.
Wow, what a leader.
This man is a stalk opposite of President Obama. Arrogant,combative,full of himself in every aspect. If the republicans thought they would get a second look from the voters because of a black man party chairman,they are in for a shock of their lives. President Obama was not beating his chest the way I just watched this guy do in a press conference.
He lost the Senate seat for a reason even with Dick Cheney and Karl Rove's money and brain on his bald head.
This guy is about as rethuglican as you can get. He is no Barack. I bet there's a bunch of rethuglicans crying in their bibles at this moment.
It is not a matter of Barack Obama working with him but it is more like those in the Republican party working with him. It is a good thing for the party that this happen but they still have a long way to go.
He was only selected because he is Black. Trust me, if John McCain won the election, we wouldn't even know who Michael Steele is. The republicans think it's abouy race...wrong. It's about policy and NOT the polcies of the republican party.
Steele couldn't get any votes when he ran for Senator of Maryland against an old white Jewish man. The black residents of Maryland didn't vote for him then, and making him chairman of the RNC isn't going to bring minorities to vote for Republicans. Such a lame attempt to copy Dems. Immitation is the biggest form of flattery!
You've got to be kidding me!
Wow! I can't believe how much he looks like Strom Thurmond. What a great day for republicans! Thank you Mr Lincoln.
Too little much too late. This is not going to get this party in step with the American people. The Republican party is tired old men that haven't a clue about what real, working Americans want. We are facing huge layoffs, housing meltdown, financial meltdown, all of the failure of the Republican administration and now the stimulus package isn't enough. There wasn't even one on their radar!!!! New ideas and substance is what we all need and NOW!!!!
Great selection! Mr. Steele is a great guy and will be a great leader. Congratulations RNC!
This is clearly a tactic by the GOP (the dems have President Obama- so, we need one too). It's too bad the appointment of Michael Steele as RNC Chair will do nothing to draw conservative African- Americans (like myself) to the GOP. Based on my belief system, education and principles, I should be a Republican; however, I will not join a political party that does not bother to reach out to me and other voters like me. This past election was not my first time voting and I vote based on issues- not political affiliation. I live in a MD suburb of Washington, DC and when Mr. Steele was Lt. Gov. he did nothing to reach out to the large African- American population in my area until he unsuccessfully ran for a US Senate seat. That's not good enough.
Can you say "Uncle"?
Yet another gimmick. Sarah was and idiot and so is Shelby.
I say to him what Rush said to Obama – I hope he fails!
Did David DUKE get to vote?
Please, don't be negative! I think it's a GIANT step forward for the RNC. I may not agree with many of their ideologies, but I have to applaud for their choice. If Obama's electing as the first African-American president prompted Steele becoming the first African-American RNC leader, then, I must say that our country has made a great progress. We should also move forward with them!
A superb choice. I used to live in MD when he was lt. governor, and it was apparent that being a backbencher was a stone waste of his time and talent.
Typically, guys like him are running hedge funds and raking in millions. I'm sure the lefties wish that is where he stayed as he wrecks their ability to paint the GOP as they see fit.
Congratulations Michael Steele! He is an excellent choice and will help bring back credibility to the GOP.
Self hating!!! enough said.
I loved his victory speech; "Change has finally come to the Republican party. Now let's work together to outlaw gays and abortion!"