January 30th, 2009
05:35 PM ET
9 years ago

Steele wins contentious RNC race


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.

Filed under: Michael Steele
soundoff (357 Responses)
  1. Proud Soldeirs Mom

    Those of you that say you don't know Michael Steele, please, read about his experience, and about him, then comment. Why comment on someone you know nothing about.

    Congratulations Mr. Steele. I feel you were the BEST choice!

    January 30, 2009 07:36 pm at 7:36 pm |
  2. Michael B

    Steele is a great person and a great republican. He was an outspoken McCain supporter.

    Anyone who thinks for a second that this election was race motivated probably knew nothing about Steele.

    Before you judge Steele and the RNC decision based on race, look at his amazing credentials. I'll bet all the critics and the cynics know nothing about this man. It's a shame that people, probably liberals, still think in black and white.

    January 30, 2009 07:37 pm at 7:37 pm |
  3. Aggrey

    it is good to see that Americans are waking from the long Slumber and taking Politics seriously. As for Steel, He needs all the support and luck perhaps for the next 20 yrs before seeing the gates of DC

    January 30, 2009 07:37 pm at 7:37 pm |
  4. Xena


    January 30, 2009 07:37 pm at 7:37 pm |
  5. CNN is so left

    I think this is a great choice. Mr. Steele is a solid moderate conservative and the type of leader the GOP needs moving forward.

    FYI Open your eyes America : it was the gop who abolished slavery!!!

    Ever heard of Abe Lincon
    he built the Republican Party into a strong national organization. Further, he rallied most of the northern Democrats to the Union cause. On January 1, 1863, he issued the Emancipation Proclamation that declared forever free those slaves within the Confederacy

    January 30, 2009 07:38 pm at 7:38 pm |
  6. Snake eyes

    Sad that both sides think Steele won because he is black, and all the subsequent comments–good and bad– on minorities.

    Have you all stopped to think that maybe of all candidates this was the best candidate to lead the party AWAY from its past behavior?? maybe steele was the least Ultra-Con, the more socially tolerant, the truer fiscal conservative. do you all think the country would have been better with that nut that distributed the Barack the Magic Negro CD??

    maybe if Steele can get the GOP off its radical social ideology we can begin to make progress in this country again.

    and mind you im not Republican...

    January 30, 2009 07:38 pm at 7:38 pm |
  7. Mike-NY

    I submit funny and witty remarks – above the belt – and CNN doesn’t post them??? Perhaps they don’t get it – I’ll type slower if that helps you.

    January 30, 2009 07:38 pm at 7:38 pm |
  8. Moe, NY

    Although I am not a Republican (perish the thought!)...I wish you well Gov. Steele. Hopefully, you can turn these jokers around, rid the GOP of lies and corruption. Wish you well!

    January 30, 2009 07:39 pm at 7:39 pm |
  9. Erwin

    Wow, is this the new Allan Keys? lol, The republicans are dead, how can a balck man lead the KKK? wow, first they brought Allan Keys against Obama and he didn't last even a month, now Steele, what a joke? the funny part of this joke is... none, the RNC is dead. R.I.P republicans. we won't miss you

    January 30, 2009 07:42 pm at 7:42 pm |
  10. Karen

    "It's time for something completely different". Is that like ... um... It's time for change? haha....heh. Oh my.

    January 30, 2009 07:42 pm at 7:42 pm |
  11. kiki

    These comments are making me laugh out loud.....

    Obama didn't win because he's black. He won cos he run a good campaign.

    Mr. Steele cannot win young voters over.

    Mr. Steele cannot win women over.

    All the blacks that voted for obama would have still voted democratic.

    This is just like how McCain picked palin to win over women. And we all know how it ended up.

    January 30, 2009 07:45 pm at 7:45 pm |
  12. Honey

    Open-minded folks can see through this window dressing. Difference in gender and race but Sarah Palin all over again.

    January 30, 2009 07:46 pm at 7:46 pm |
  13. John

    GOP, You Guys are all DONE.

    You Guys have RUN OUT OF IDEAS.

    You know what,.... JUST SIT BACK, Smoke ASH, Eat Pills like LIMBAUGH and GEORGE W. BUSH.

    We DEMOCRATS will take care of USA an YOU GUYS, because you are our BROTHERS AND SISTERS AMERICANS. WE LOVE YOU GOP.


    January 30, 2009 08:00 pm at 8:00 pm |
  14. J. Parham

    I still remember the all white crowds and the hateful rhetoric during the campaign. Putting a black man out front will not change the minds of Black voters. The second he attacks Obama the s***t will hit the fan.

    January 30, 2009 08:00 pm at 8:00 pm |
  15. aware

    Actually the DNC/Media selected Obama because they knew they couldn't push Hillary around! 🙂

    January 30, 2009 08:01 pm at 8:01 pm |
  16. Ted:Canada

    I have a strong feeling that the GOP slogan might be?










    or best of all


    January 30, 2009 08:02 pm at 8:02 pm |
  17. rc

    Those of you claiming he's just the token african american in the republican party are just as racist as the people you're accusing of selecting him to "counter" barack obama... and it's sad. As a moderate, asian-american, young republican i will give him the benefit of the doubt and say he was chosen because he will be the best to lead the republican party back to the ideals of fiscal and social conservatism, ideas that aren't as right-wing and for old white men as democrats think.

    January 30, 2009 08:06 pm at 8:06 pm |
  18. Flo

    What did he promise the GOP to do their bidding? President Obama support among minorities will continue to grow and Michael Steele should be wary of his infuence in these communities. Rush and his idiotic party should try chnging their ways if they want minorities ton tske them seriously. Yes people, Rush is calling the shots and that is why the Repunblicans will lose in 2012 regardless if they elect a Black RNC chair (insignificant). Their policy is what they need to change , not the face of their head of the party. GOP is a joke!!!!!!!!!!!

    January 30, 2009 08:06 pm at 8:06 pm |
  19. Jen, Philadelphia

    Kayla, you want to know what the rednecks are thinking? Just re-read the comments from your fellow liberals posted below. Somehow, that's considered that party of inclusion and tolerance!

    January 30, 2009 08:08 pm at 8:08 pm |
  20. just dallas

    well if nothing else hats off to the GOP for atleat atempting to come in the 21st century altho I do'nt know how much will change still republican

    January 30, 2009 08:09 pm at 8:09 pm |
  21. Ron from Red Texas

    Uncle Mike can not be Barak Obama. Obama has attended a traditional Black church. Blacks will not dance in the streets for Uncle Mike. This is like replacinh Justice T. Marshall with Justice Clarence Thomas. Uncle Mike is the same as Clarence Thomas. This is not a good day for Blacks

    January 30, 2009 08:09 pm at 8:09 pm |
  22. curious

    Lt. Governor Steele seems well qualified, congratulations to him. I hope that the GOP improves under his leadership.

    However one can not help but wonder about the timing. I am hoping that he was selected because he is qualified and competent, like he appears to be. However, if it is not mere coincidence that he became chairman of the GOP after President Obama became the first African American president, then while I do not fault Steele, I do want those who voted for him for the wrong reasons to know that voting for a black man because he is black is just as racist as not voting for a black man be cause he is black. As I said, I hope that was not their reasoning, but if it was it will come out, and they will fail if their reasoning was trying to appease and pander to people.

    January 30, 2009 08:10 pm at 8:10 pm |
  23. James!

    Repugnants AK copy-cat, you think Steele will equate Obama????Wrong!!!! Obama got where he is now because of his ingenuity and not his race. If you want minorities votes, put Jessie Jackson on leadership position!

    January 30, 2009 08:12 pm at 8:12 pm |
  24. flexx


    January 30, 2009 08:13 pm at 8:13 pm |
  25. Tee Gee

    amazingly the repugs would tap a black male along the lines of President Obama in as such both are attorney-trained. So obvious this was done to counter the minority voting bloc. Yet still will be hard pressed to make inroads after this administration steers the country and economy towards more stable times. Note that it took six votes to elect Mr. Steele, Will it take six months before the party actually splits?

    January 30, 2009 08:14 pm at 8:14 pm |
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