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. thanks, but no thanks

    It is kind of funny. This is the best the republicans can come with. Tax cuts would not work, yet they still trump them as a way of coming out of recession. They just do not get it. It starts with first changing your priorities. Second, stop pretending of putting country first. l heard no one of you the last 8 years complaining about the direction where the country was going. And please, Mr. Steele is not President Obama. He is mere a puppet Republican.

    January 30, 2009 05:06 pm at 5:06 pm |
  2. Carl


    Words cannot describe your blatant stupidity...

    I hope you don't have kids....

    January 30, 2009 05:06 pm at 5:06 pm |
  3. JB

    This smacks of tokenism. The RNC hasn't exactly been the most minority-friendly party.

    I guess this gives them the appearance of being a "big tent" – they're all about appearances you know (it's substance they have problems with). I won't buy this as legit til there's more than 5 total African Americans in the house and senate.

    January 30, 2009 05:08 pm at 5:08 pm |
  4. anyway

    Rebublicans, lol, this is hilarious. Are you serious, we see right through you.

    January 30, 2009 05:08 pm at 5:08 pm |
  5. red

    ohhh no!!!!!!!!!!!!! he is no obama!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! booooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooo!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    January 30, 2009 05:08 pm at 5:08 pm |
  6. Neutral

    I think this is a good selection. At least its an effort get away from the "white-only Republican" stereotype that still runs wild within their party.

    January 30, 2009 05:08 pm at 5:08 pm |
  7. Shelley C

    Michael Steele is an accomplished individual who had a distinguished record in Maryland and nationally. He was the first Republican Lt. Governor of the State as well as the first African American to hold elected state wide office in Maryland (2003-2007).

    As the former Chair of not only GOPAC but, the Maryland Republican Party, he was highly succesful in putting Republicans into office.

    A comment like the above saddens me (I think he was only picked because of Barack Obama) because there will be those who may look at this as another "Palin" move (counter balance the Democrats). Instead, this indicates a move away from that mentality and more toward reality–the party must change.

    Steele is an excellent choice all by himself, no matter who is President. He is articulate, intelligent and inspiring, plus understands the mistakes the party has made and what they need to do to correct them.

    January 30, 2009 05:09 pm at 5:09 pm |
  8. cool

    Its just odd.
    Not that he is not qualified, but you him NOW?

    *joke time*
    Like with Obama, when everything is in the can, you pick a black person to clean it up.

    January 30, 2009 05:09 pm at 5:09 pm |
  9. gary

    The Dems enjoy talking about race bating, but his colleagues pelted him with Oreo cookies when he served in Maryland - for daring to think and act for himself. For not towing the Democrat line that ends up undermining the black population.

    January 30, 2009 05:09 pm at 5:09 pm |
  10. bb

    Nice try RNC, nice try!!

    January 30, 2009 05:09 pm at 5:09 pm |
  11. Jake

    It's good to see the RNC has at least one Black man in the party and not a bunch of old white cratchity fogeys, but this guy is a nut. I remember seeing him on Bill Maher during the election. He is very pushey, doesn't allow other people to get their statements out fully, and seems to agree with all of the filth the right was spewing about Obama during the election. But hey, by all means Republicans, keep trying to get the fringe nutjobs to vote for you. There's far more voters that are centrist or Democrats in this country and it is growing every year.

    January 30, 2009 05:09 pm at 5:09 pm |
  12. Jukebox

    Is this not the same thing as picking Palin to win the Hillary votes.

    January 30, 2009 05:09 pm at 5:09 pm |
  13. Jean

    THe 'stimulus' bill" is loaded with pork. Obama said no pork another BIG LIE.

    WAKE UP!


    January 30, 2009 05:09 pm at 5:09 pm |
  14. gurarro

    Good luck to Steele. I hope he is more than a figure head and can make a real difference in the Republican party. If he was chosen to garner the minority vote, too late. The Republicans lost that vote in 2008.

    January 30, 2009 05:10 pm at 5:10 pm |
  15. Cali Kid

    As a Black man...I'm offended

    January 30, 2009 05:10 pm at 5:10 pm |
  16. Farrell, Houston, Tx

    I'm simply not impressed.

    January 30, 2009 05:10 pm at 5:10 pm |
  17. Texas Doc

    Copy Cats. Too bad his party is the party of intolerance and bigotry. Lets see how much backing he gets from the Grand Old Haters.

    January 30, 2009 05:10 pm at 5:10 pm |
  18. ran

    This may help a little but until the Republicans change their "core values" that is trying to legislate morality,antiabortion/gay rights/only tax cuts for the rich/power-party first; they will continue to lose.

    January 30, 2009 05:10 pm at 5:10 pm |
  19. Texas Doc

    Copy Cats. Too bad his party is the party of intolerance and bigotry. Lets see how much backing he gets from the Grand Old Haters.

    January 30, 2009 05:10 pm at 5:10 pm |
  20. real McShame

    What wouldn't republicans do to get some black voters?
    How cynical! I am from MD. Steele is a looser.

    January 30, 2009 05:10 pm at 5:10 pm |
  21. Delando

    It just seems that the Republicans have been playing catch-up this whole polictical season. They tried Palin to counter act the Hillary factor. Now it seems they have elected Steele as the counter act to Obama. Where is the pro-active wing of their party. If they ever want people like myself who are Democratics to think about maybe ,just maybe the other parties candidate is best for me they need to not look like the always white angry man party. Show and include more minorities in your your party leaders so it really seems that your are including everyone and speak to everyone.

    January 30, 2009 05:13 pm at 5:13 pm |
  22. phil.c

    ha ha ha ha, this republicans are funny. lol . i got it . they know obama is gonna win the 2012 election so they are trying to break the african american support of obama into half . this is what i call rubbish. it will not work. republicans are always devising mechanisms to win , but the will not win in 2012.

    January 30, 2009 05:14 pm at 5:14 pm |
  23. Republicants

    This just proves how hard Republicans have been fighting for the rights of minorities and the poor ever since Barack obama was elected President.

    January 30, 2009 05:14 pm at 5:14 pm |
  24. Once you vote Black

    Steele will now have to stand on his own and against the MaHa Rushie if he is going to move the ball forward. This is good for the GOP but the results of it won't be seen until 2020 and by then Hillary will be running for her 2nd term.

    January 30, 2009 05:14 pm at 5:14 pm |
  25. N.A

    I think the Repulican party expired already and outdated, it's not the personality that makes the party, it's the issues.

    January 30, 2009 05:15 pm at 5:15 pm |
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