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.
I do not think this was part of Dr. Martin Luther King's dream of coming to the "Mountain Top".
Soo, the RNC went out and found a "House Negro" to do it's dirty work huh? That's right Steele, hurry up and clean up that mess "boy".
A good man for the job. Way to go Mr. Steele!!
With all due respect to Mr. Steele, who didn't see this coming from a million miles away?
I wish Mr. Steel the best of luck, but I have to agree with a lot of the other posters that this seems like a bad re-run of "Oh look ! John boy picked Palin to get the disenfranchized Clinton voters!" It just seems way too contrived RNC for it to be taken as sincere by most americans. I also wonder what the "rednecks" are thinking tonight!
Wow could theRNC be anymore obvious,they still dont get it.
Are you trying to tell me the republicans elected a black man to lead the klan? Wow change has come to america. God Bless America
White people just don't have a chance anymore
Is there one american out who believes Steel would have been elected to lead the RNC if McCain and the Idiot won the election? Can we all say "Uncle Steel's Party"
Was the republican party a psuedo-klan party or an all southern white party when Powell and Rice were made secretaries of state?
Why is it "pandering" when republican minorities gain a position of prominence,yet its "historic" when democratic minorites do the same things.
Its hypocritical and disgusting!
Goos luck Mr.Steele.
People claiming this choice was about Steele's color are ignorant.
Michael Steele has been a leader in the Republican Leadership Council since the get-go. The RLC is a moderate group of republicans that includes Christine Todd Whitman (one of my all-time faves.) Some believed his ties to RLC would prevent him from becoming the head of the RNC. I'm very glad it didn't.
I only wish the CNN reporters were smart enough to share Michael Steele's background and beliefs rather than just focusing on his race. Steele was elected to this position because of his beliefs.
Furhermore, the left-wing loonies spewing hatred using terms like "repuglicans" and deeming us all racists are scary. How do such uneducated, ill-informed people garner such egotism? Scary.
This is just a smoke screen. The GOP dont know what direction to go.
They are still a white club., and steele is just a show…………..they still dont get it. all they want is to lower taxes for the rich and keep their reck necks base. This party made up is rich whites and poor un educated whites who need to fit in. They are the worst hate
group in the USA because they are the one that think they have the power to do want they what. You red necks Rep., they dont
care about you and your needs ,they care about following the money and keeping the money happy and the money making more money.
Wake up They are users……They dont care about the middle case
or the lower case and their needs. SHOW TIME
Republicans have always been color blind.
We pick the best person for the job.
This man is a conservative. That's why he won.
Get over it.
No way those red neck, I mean red state folks are going to like this.
John@January 30th, 2009 6:26 pm ET
What a joke – how many votes will your new poster boy get you GOP'ers?
Ummm, the Democratic poster boy won the Presidency.... so, you never know.
The republicans still don't get it. All blacks don't look alike, neither do we THINK alike. They lost the election because they are out of touch with people of all color. Putting a black man in charge is not going to work any better, he is just another Sarah Palin. (a token).
George Bush got the shoes, Ann Coulter got the pies (check out you-tube for the "Ann Coulter" one), and Michael Steele may just get the OREOS.
Michael Steele you are stupid to accept this position. I feel like you were the token chosen one today. You better keep your eyes open, mouth close and legs cross. No love for he brother right about now.
as McCain himself so succinctly put it, "you can put lipstick on a pig, but it's still a pig." How prophetic.
Oh please Give me a break! First Palin and now Steele, this people think just because they put in the front an African American all the hideous thoughts and talks went away.
They don't get it. Mr Steele is a good choice, he's an intellegent man but he's no Barack Obama. It's obvious that like Palin he's being used as a token. Very sad.
The Republicans just don't get it. Just as Sarah Palin was a poor subsitute for Hillary Clinton, so is Mr. Steele for President Obama. They just don't get the fact that Pres. Obama was not elected based on race solely but because of his fresh ideas, youth, energy, and his desire to unite a very divided United States of America. Pres. Obama is brilliant and brings something to this country that has been missing for many years..UNITY! . I am black. However, choosing someone based on race to try and undo the Obama effect is ridiculous and it won't work.....
Congratulations to Mr. Steele. It appears he is a good man and this is a sign of progress for the Republicans. However, I am curious how Mr. Steele reacted to the "Obama the Magic Negro" incident. I would feel about as comfortable as a duck in a pond full of gators if I was this man.
Whatever! The African Americans rule right now.
How cute, different face, same repub bull !!