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. Ryan

    Of course they NEED a leader... they can't think as individuals.

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

    Electing a black man to head their party was a nice jesture on the part of the Republican Party, but it will not solve their problems with the electorate. They must first embrace the idea that government belong to the American people, and we want to tell politicians what to do, not have big business tell them what is right for us. Until Republicans learn this, they will remain on the margins of the political landscape.

    January 30, 2009 05:30 pm at 5:30 pm |
  3. Ann Marie

    I am pleased with their selection but do the Republicans think they are fooling anyone-but themselves. The only reason they voted him in is because of Obama. Too little–too late. What hypocrisy!

    January 30, 2009 05:31 pm at 5:31 pm |
  4. Judy

    They chose Palin to attract Hillary voters and Steele to attract Obama voters. They just don't get it.

    January 30, 2009 05:31 pm at 5:31 pm |
  5. DC

    Of course... the GOP is saying, "Look, we like black people too."

    January 30, 2009 05:31 pm at 5:31 pm |
  6. jtr

    haha, well, they tried to win by putting a folksy woman on the ticket, failed. Now, Obama is president, hoopla surrounding being the first African American president...doesn't surprise me that the RNC chose this guy. The loss is still hurting them so bad that they think they can pull their image out of the gutter. Steele-Palin ticket for 2112, I'll wager.

    January 30, 2009 05:31 pm at 5:31 pm |
  7. Jean2

    A lousy atempt by the RNC to recruit manority members. What does Rush think????????

    January 30, 2009 05:31 pm at 5:31 pm |
  8. Bill in PA

    Guess who's coming to dinner Rush?

    January 30, 2009 05:31 pm at 5:31 pm |
  9. SMW

    I supported Obama since the beginning. I find it funny that the RNC looks at the accomplishments he made and says hey if it works for the Democrats it can work for us. What they don't realize is that Obama is not and has never beeen about color, he is about hope and change. This is just the long goodbye from the RNC.

    January 30, 2009 05:32 pm at 5:32 pm |
  10. Rob

    LMAO!!! Sorry, couldn't help myself.

    January 30, 2009 05:32 pm at 5:32 pm |
  11. jeb

    now to add icing on the cake watch them snatch up a couple of hispanics. to put on this sharade or false front for therepiblican party. the stars and bars are up in arms tonight. people you are being hoodwinked.

    January 30, 2009 05:32 pm at 5:32 pm |
  12. Bilbo

    Just like the GOP picked Sarah Palin as their token female candidate, it smells like they picked this guy to be their token black candidate. Are they going to run him against Obama in 2012 too?

    January 30, 2009 05:32 pm at 5:32 pm |
  13. Franky

    Congrats Steele...and he is the first African-American chairman too for that party. It'll be interesting how he manages his game style.

    Give him a fair chance, let's see what game he's got...

    January 30, 2009 05:32 pm at 5:32 pm |
  14. markymark22

    excellent choice!

    January 30, 2009 05:32 pm at 5:32 pm |
  15. HEIDI

    I am a democrate and I voted for changed and Pres Obama. As an Aferican American Woman I am please that an Aferican American was picked to head the RNC, but I think that his win is two-fold.

    The Republican think that this will get them back in the running for 2010 & 2012. Sorry, but this won't work.

    January 30, 2009 05:35 pm at 5:35 pm |
  16. Tom in Delaware

    Right On! Truly the best pick and the future direction of the Party.

    Couldn't be happier with his selection!

    Lead on Michael, we're all behind you!

    January 30, 2009 05:35 pm at 5:35 pm |
  17. megs

    Michelle... dream on. Steele is a true conservative. His color has nothing to do with it ... unlike the election of "The one" who was only elected because of his skin color. Steele was elected because of his abilities and ideas. You know ... content of character vs color of skin.

    January 30, 2009 05:35 pm at 5:35 pm |
  18. Sam Jones

    It is probably mean-spirited but I feel a bit disgusted by this. Mike Steele, from what I'd read until now, was never someone the Republican party, ideologically speaking, would make their chair. I'm sure he's a great guy, but he seems a moderate conservative at best. The reason his win bugs me is because when they thought putting a woman on the ticket would help them, the Republicans pick an IDIOT – Sarah Palin – just because she's a woman. Now, because the nation is in love with their first black president, the Republicans pick Steele. How could anyone not think the party picked him because he's black and a great speaker like Obama? Just 4 months ago, they were race baiting and fear mongering (ie: Obama is a secret Muslim), but now they are celebrating "how far they've come"? Even Steele just said on NPR like 15 days ago that the GoP don't care about blacks. I'm sure Steele is a good person but his party is nothing like him – and copying the left just so you can start winning again is pathetic. He won't deserve the title but I'd be surprised if the Malcolm X quotes about types of blacks don't start again.

    January 30, 2009 05:35 pm at 5:35 pm |
  19. See thru also

    He is a pawn!

    January 30, 2009 05:36 pm at 5:36 pm |
  20. Seun

    Can you imagine?A black president then a black person in charge of the RNC?

    January 30, 2009 05:36 pm at 5:36 pm |
  21. Kim

    First black RNC leader...WOW, why did they wait until we had our first black president to make changes....OH please, good luck. LOL!

    January 30, 2009 05:36 pm at 5:36 pm |
  22. mw

    LOL...the repugs are trying to get a little color on their team! This is pretty hilarous!

    January 30, 2009 05:37 pm at 5:37 pm |
  23. PAUL W.

    wow, how bout that for pandering.

    January 30, 2009 05:37 pm at 5:37 pm |
  24. Amy

    They are using you, thinking the color of your skin will appeal to the liberal conservatives. It's the Sarah Palin trick pulled once again.

    January 30, 2009 05:37 pm at 5:37 pm |
  25. gina

    Good Grief ! He is going to need more than LUCK...

    January 30, 2009 05:37 pm at 5:37 pm |
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