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. Polly

    It's becoming like the Miss America Pageant.

    January 30, 2009 09:20 pm at 9:20 pm |
  2. John, Montreal

    Will you please post my earlier comment CNN? How long does it take to moderate a comment...? Or is because I said he is the negro pall baearer of the RNC..?

    January 30, 2009 09:20 pm at 9:20 pm |
  3. Pepou

    Now they want their Obama ! Too little, too late.

    January 30, 2009 09:21 pm at 9:21 pm |
  4. Amy

    I can't say I'm surprised that the out of touch republicans feel the road to a comeback is to elect an african american to head the RNC. Not to downplay the ability of Mr Steele but this seems like an elite frat boy social expirement.

    January 30, 2009 09:23 pm at 9:23 pm |
  5. Hot Rod

    As an educated Black man who does very well for himself and his family. As someone who studies politics and as someone who voted for President Obama, this is my reaction to Michael Steele and the Republican party.

    January 30, 2009 09:24 pm at 9:24 pm |
  6. GOP what a joke

    Right– blacks will now believe that the GOP is not racist because they picked this lap dog after 6 votes. You know, like when women decided to flock to them after they put that air-head Sarah Palin on their ticket. The most insulting part about this is that Michael Steele is too dumb to know that he's a token.

    January 30, 2009 09:26 pm at 9:26 pm |
  7. Wedge

    Those of you who say this was only a ploy to counter Obama being African-American... Are you admitting that picking a black candidate for the Democrats was also a ploy?
    Listen to yourselves! Going on and on about the Republicans being a party of hate and divisiveness, while you yourselves are being hateful and divisive. Republicans aren't all uneducated, southern white rednecks like you want to believe, no more than Democrats are all wealthy, snotty trial lawyers who snub the law when it applies to them.
    Personally, I feel it's a good time for some soul searching in the party. We've lost the old fiscal conservatism that marked Gingrich's time and given into the same pork spending that we used to pin on the Democrats, while taking on far too many of the hateful former Dem racists. I wish Steele good luck steering the party the right way in these times, but from the sound of this board, many racist hatemongers are already Democrats again so that shouldn't be an issue.

    January 30, 2009 09:27 pm at 9:27 pm |
  8. John, Montreal

    How fitting..A black pall bearer to carry the RNC to its final resting place.

    January 30, 2009 09:28 pm at 9:28 pm |
  9. Barbara

    Mr. Steele should know that the only reason they chose him was because of President Obama. I wish him luck. The Republican Party is trying everything to regain grace with the people.

    January 30, 2009 09:31 pm at 9:31 pm |
  10. lil

    Steele is the only African American in the republican party and the only
    reason hes there is because he can say things about Obama in public and get away with it.

    January 30, 2009 09:39 pm at 9:39 pm |
  11. Mike - Houston

    Individuals bashing Mr. Steele on this blog are truely racists, no matter that they support Obama (obviously to hide their true colors).

    January 30, 2009 10:08 pm at 10:08 pm |
  12. Xavier

    Steel = Obama lite. Its not as good as the original.
    Seriously, republicans are grasping at straws. The election of Obama wasnt so much about race, as it was a rejection of the republican way of thinking which was found to be lacking. Mr. Steel I am sure is a good man who has worked hard to be where he is at, but I hope he realizes that the republicans are only using him.

    January 30, 2009 10:08 pm at 10:08 pm |
  13. Morgan

    The Republican party today resembles very little of the party during Lincoln. You can thank Nixon and Reagan for that one. Lincoln was for a strong union and strong government. Republicans now argue for more state rights and less government. That is more like the confederate party than Lincoln.

    January 30, 2009 10:10 pm at 10:10 pm |
  14. Debby

    Fantastic selection congrats Mr. Steele

    January 30, 2009 10:10 pm at 10:10 pm |
  15. M. Ann D.

    Come on we know what this is all about. African-Americans still will not vote for Republicans even if you put that Steele guy as the head of the RNC. What do all those Republicans who said such racists,mean and nasty things about President Obama think of this move?

    January 30, 2009 10:15 pm at 10:15 pm |
  16. Carl Justus

    We will see how good the rank and file work with Mr. Steele. I will be the southern republicans will fight him at every turn.
    They will criticize his every move, that it is not conservative enough.
    They will want the man to do as they say instead of working with him to build the party with inclusion instead of exclusion.

    January 30, 2009 10:15 pm at 10:15 pm |
  17. Tolu

    2009 – the year of the Black!

    January 30, 2009 10:18 pm at 10:18 pm |


    January 30, 2009 10:19 pm at 10:19 pm |
  19. Texas Trail Kitty

    Finally, finally, the Republicans are beginning to see the light. Actually I would find the more believable if (1) Sarah Palin had not been the nominee for Vice President and (2) the Republican Convention had not resembled a KKK meeting. Still it is nice to see the Republicans pulling their collective heads out of their collective butts. And I wish Mr. Steel a lot of luck I can't help but have the feeling that they will kick him to the curb when they decide that they don't need him. In the meantime, "Take That Lush Limbaugh. How do you like your party now!?"

    January 30, 2009 10:20 pm at 10:20 pm |
  20. M. Ann D.

    You are so right, I know the red states are loving this move. I can see Alabama calling Kentucky, man did you see what they just did? They got some Negro heading our party. One heading the country, now our Republican Party, they are trying to take over. Call the Secret Service.

    January 30, 2009 10:22 pm at 10:22 pm |
  21. Chicken George

    I won't attack Mr. Steele's qualifications to head the party or the motivations for his selection; however, I sincerely hope this is not a gimmick to attract minority voters. Minority voters have demonstrated over and over again in Mr. Steele's failed bids for elected office, their rejection of his party's ideology, policies, and rhetoric, irrespective of his race.

    I'm curious if Mr. Steele would, again, attend the annual State of the Black Union conference and this time, present with clarity, the standard GOP talking points regarding immigration, entitlements, and the supremacy of corporate interests....

    January 30, 2009 10:26 pm at 10:26 pm |
  22. DP

    Calling me a racist because I am a republican. Wow! That is one of the most racist and discriminating remarks ever. I am a republican because I believe the governments role in our lives should be limited to providing essential services. I should not have to pay taxes so someone else can sit at home collecting a free paycheck. The government should not be in the business of providing health care.

    January 30, 2009 10:26 pm at 10:26 pm |
  23. PJinNC

    Why is my comment from 4:20 pm still awaiting moderation?

    January 30, 2009 10:28 pm at 10:28 pm |
  24. John


    We're now supposed to believe the GOP isn't really the party of bigots?

    There's such a thing as tokenism.

    January 30, 2009 10:29 pm at 10:29 pm |
  25. Scott

    First African American as the head of the Party? I think you mean the
    ONLY African American in the party.

    This is so transparent. It won't work. Kind of like the Palin Plot.

    January 30, 2009 10:30 pm at 10:30 pm |
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