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. Tay in Texas

    Steel has shown himself to be fiscally conservative and socially moderate. More important, he is not a right wing religious nut job. In a system that is supposed to have checks and balances, this may be a guy whose politics I can live with. We can all speculate about the timing of "this" and the motivation of "that" until the cows come home, but in the grand scheme of things, if this is somethings that helps our broken government function a bit better than it currently does, then I am all for it.

    In as much as I mostly support the platforms and aims of my party (DNC, duh!), even I am leery about the complete and total collapse of the other side. We have a 2 party system for a reason. The RNC has been so far off in recent years that I have developed serious concerns for its continued viability as a political machine. They have allowed their party to be high jacked by relgious extremists and back woods know nothings who are afraid of education and knowledge...all key contributors to the "dumbing down" of America.

    I'm putting my soap away now...

    January 30, 2009 04:58 pm at 4:58 pm |
  2. marco

    You must be kidding!

    GOP = No original ideas.

    January 30, 2009 04:58 pm at 4:58 pm |
  3. mapmure

    This remind me of when the republicans chose Palin as there VP.

    January 30, 2009 04:58 pm at 4:58 pm |
  4. Chris K.

    Once again, the Republicans just don't get it. They picked Sarah Palin because she was a woman, in order to get the Hillary vote, but it backfired when it became clear Sarah was no Hilary. Now they've chosen Michael Steele, in order to get the black vote. Folks, he ain't no Obama.

    January 30, 2009 04:58 pm at 4:58 pm |
  5. heather, new york

    the republicans may thing that the recent win by a black democrat signifies that all it takes is skin color to sweep a nation. not taking anything away from Mr. Steele, but the GOP needs more than this to dig out from the abyss in which they find themselves.

    January 30, 2009 04:58 pm at 4:58 pm |
  6. Nacho Cheese

    Oh goodie, now the Repugs are "one of us"! ::rolls eyes::

    January 30, 2009 04:59 pm at 4:59 pm |
  7. Double Standards?

    Michelle, I advise you to stop looking at the color of one's skin and focus on the quality of their character like Dr. King asked us all to do many years ago

    January 30, 2009 04:59 pm at 4:59 pm |
  8. Felicha




    January 30, 2009 04:59 pm at 4:59 pm |
  9. Big deal, this is a little 'first'..

    The GOP has made a number of firsts already. One being, the first African American man and woman as Secretary of State. Which, in my opinion, are much more prestigious and important than head of the RNC. But, maybe having the first black man to run the GOP is something special.

    But, if this was done, in some way, to attract more African Americans to the GOP, then maybe they should really focus on the issues.

    January 30, 2009 04:59 pm at 4:59 pm |
  10. karen

    whatever republicans, this is not gonna get u any af-american votes,, him and kenneth blackwell are blacklisted from the black community,,,, its okay to be affliated with a different party,,, but when u put down the historical nature of the election as kenneth blackwell did then you are a loser,,,,the loser list,,, kenneth blackwell, michael steele, bob johnson,,, majic johnson,,,,, blowhards

    January 30, 2009 05:00 pm at 5:00 pm |
  11. Mathew


    January 30, 2009 05:00 pm at 5:00 pm |
  12. kman821

    Winning the Chairmanship of the RNC has all the prestige of winning an Ugly Dog contest ... why would any self-respecting black man want to be a member of the republican party let alone chair their national committee? Big whoop! I hope he enjoys sharing the spotlight with Rush!!

    January 30, 2009 05:03 pm at 5:03 pm |
  13. Realist

    The year of white guilt continues....

    January 30, 2009 05:03 pm at 5:03 pm |
  14. patti

    Uncle Tom?

    January 30, 2009 05:03 pm at 5:03 pm |
  15. paul oregon

    i wonder what the gop leaders think?? especially palin and limbaugh
    they have a black leader that they will be expected to follow. lol

    January 30, 2009 05:03 pm at 5:03 pm |
  16. mmd

    I think he is magic.

    January 30, 2009 05:04 pm at 5:04 pm |
  17. deb in Colo

    Ugly tie.

    January 30, 2009 05:04 pm at 5:04 pm |
  18. Georgia Girl

    Can we say token! It is about time the Repubs get some color and realize the fabric of America is no longer the color of black and white.

    January 30, 2009 05:04 pm at 5:04 pm |
  19. David Rogers

    He was a great Lt. Gov. for Maryland, and has real potential as a national leader. I hope and expect great things.

    January 30, 2009 05:04 pm at 5:04 pm |
  20. Gene of DC

    He is Mike Tyson former brother in law.

    January 30, 2009 05:04 pm at 5:04 pm |
  21. Robbin

    you're being used Mr Steele. Sorry

    January 30, 2009 05:04 pm at 5:04 pm |
  22. Philip

    Well he might be the most intelligents of the candidates, but they picked him because of his race, just like they picked Palin because of her gender. It's still the GOP and their selfish stinking thinking that got us into this mess - let's hope the public is not fooled!

    January 30, 2009 05:04 pm at 5:04 pm |
  23. Robin

    Good Luck Mr. Steele! I have confidence in you and my party.

    January 30, 2009 05:05 pm at 5:05 pm |
  24. David

    This is only the right wing with their smoke and mirrors once again. Stick a black guy out in front, and continue to conduct their racist business behind his back. It's like the Klan electing a black leader. Maybe he should have talked with Colin Powell first. Well, he knew what he was getting himself into, so good luck to him. He's gonna need it.

    January 30, 2009 05:06 pm at 5:06 pm |
  25. tfc

    The blind leading the blind.

    January 30, 2009 05:06 pm at 5:06 pm |
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