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.
This must have the hard-core right faction of the GOP ready to mutiny.
One has to wonder about the timing of the GOP picking a black man to lead it into oblivion. This proves their message is lost. Their white, religious-right cult fanatic followers are screaming bloody hell right about now!
I think it's a good choice, and shows diversity, but unfortunately, this is probably the final nail in the GOP coffin, because of the GOP lemmings: mainly white, gun-toting racists.
Oh, the times they are a chaingin'!
That's ok I think Barack was picked only because of race.
Wow, welcome to the 20th Century. And to think, it was only a few months ago that they were supporting a song called "Barack the Magic Negro." This selection stinks of pandering. Ok, so the broad didn't work, let's try a Negro. Better jump far from the sinking ship Repugs!
This I believe was the best choice. Now let's see if the policies actually move toward the middle, because that is all that really matters doesn't it?
Hey look, we got a black guy too!
I hope he don't be a token for the RNC/GOP
Hey Michelle; that's bad news for you huh? Well...it's a long time coming so you have to get used to it.
Black, Whie, Brown or even Green...as long as it is an American; he is an American.
The days of "only Whites" are over, on both sides of the fence. Take that to the bank.
I want to see Hispanics, Jews, Indians and even those we love hate take office AS LONG AS THEY ARE AMERICANS AND DO RIGHT FOR AMERICANS!
Can they now sit at the "popular kids table" at lunch?
Leave it to the Repubs–it's all about image! (Let's see, the Dems have a pretty popular gal in that Clinton woman, so we'll get Sarah Palin! Then they got that even more popular black guy, Barak Obama, so we'll get...uhh, who's out there..You! What's your name? Steele? We'll take ya!)
HEY THE REPUBLICANS ARE NOW DIVERSE....AND THEIR TENT WIDE AND VARIED.
Who is Michael Steele? What is it ten Black Republicians in america? What Party is that? IT IS THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA THAT PARTY IS DEVIDED.
Change you can believe in!
Copy cats. Again, nothing ORIGINAL or innovative from the Rethuglicans. Now if they could just stop palling around with racists, terrorists and people from the fake America ...
Steele defended former Gov. Bob Ehrlich's decision to hold a $100,000 fundraiser at a country club that did not allow non-white members, saying that the club's membership's policies were "not an issue" because "I don't play golf."
They are trying to stay up with the democrats. If "Chip" had not sent the CD out about President Obama, this guy would never have been considered. What was Bush always trying to say "don't fool me once or twice............., " and he could never get it right.
Although it's not my party, I hope this guy has some more inspired ideas than 'drill baby, drill'.
I thought the Republicans were a party of sexist bigots.
But they picked a woman for Vice President.
And an African American for Party Chairman.
Maybe I was wrong.
"Hey America – we like black people too!" – RNC
I guess the Daily Show was right......"Black is in" LOL
Republicans are always a day late and dollar short.
1st: Hillary runs for president
2nd: Republicans answer with unqualified POS Sarah Palin
1st: Obama becomes president
2nd: Republicans answer with Michael Steele as RNC chairman.
Republicans have realized that their time is short, their party is weak. They are now looking to the Democrats for answers, and are trying to mimic their moves.
No one is fooled GOP.
Give me a break. You mean the "Republi-Klans" are actually going to choose someone black? What a coincidence....Wow.... I am so shocked. What about all those rifle-loving backwoods Repubs? Are they going to send out the KKK to get him now? You guys all talk the talk but do not walk the walk until you are made fools of......Give me a break.