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. Antony

    Please. hahaha. same way they picked Palin because of Hillary now they pick this dude because of Obama???
    Politics is turning into comedy

    January 30, 2009 05:52 pm at 5:52 pm |
  2. J.L.

    Not to be cynical here, but the timing of the RNC selecting its first African-American chairman seem really suspicious... I mean, some can see this as their way of trying to appeal to minorities. But I hate to say this, it's not because of the chairman that the Republican Party does not appeal to minorities. It is the exclusionary ideals and nature of the Republican Party that keeps minorities away. So that's where the RNC members selecting an African-American chairman seems suspect.

    After saying that though... I'm hoping I'm wrong. I am hoping that Steele can stop the continued push towards the far-right... stop it from continuing to become the white-bible thumping-science hating-greed loving-minority/immigrant fearing political party.

    January 30, 2009 05:52 pm at 5:52 pm |
  3. Lisa

    RNC so sad.... Palin couldn't bring it; now this.......... give him his 15 minutes and let move on............

    January 30, 2009 05:52 pm at 5:52 pm |
  4. nathan thomas

    I don't know why but this feels more like an insult.

    January 30, 2009 05:52 pm at 5:52 pm |
  5. selam


    Ohh yes DNC picked Obama to be their leader.

    January 30, 2009 05:53 pm at 5:53 pm |
  6. Gail Weitz

    Looks as if the Republicans are setting the table for Sarah Palin's run in 2010. I am guessing Steele's background means GOP is once again moving back to their narrow base...anti-abortion, "moral" values, homophobia, and big business.
    During a time of economic crisis in this country they continue with their divisive tactics....what a bunch of losers!

    January 30, 2009 05:53 pm at 5:53 pm |
  7. James

    hahaha... the decision somehow feels... forced? i'm just saying. it's great to consciously elect a black man but coming from this party, it seems that the conscious decision has underlying motives in addition to having a seemingly good leader.

    January 30, 2009 05:53 pm at 5:53 pm |
  8. Grayson

    What in the world will he "spar with Obama" for? So the republicans are officially Anti-anything Obama says and does. Glad I live in a blue state.

    January 30, 2009 05:53 pm at 5:53 pm |
  9. Pat Canada

    I'm surprised there are not at least a minority of Republicans using Race as the reason for Gov. Steele's win. It was the reason for everything during Obama's Campaign! 🙂

    January 30, 2009 05:54 pm at 5:54 pm |
  10. Mike, St. Louis


    January 30, 2009 05:54 pm at 5:54 pm |
  11. texasgreenacres

    NO doubt he probably is a good pick. But why not until now? And why just the leader of the party? Why not candidate for president?Could his place be only because president Obama open the locked door of racism? THINK ABOUT IT SERIOUS AND IF HE DOESN"T DO GREAT HE WON"T GET ANOTHER CHANCE?

    January 30, 2009 05:54 pm at 5:54 pm |
  12. CR

    Are they kidding? All of a sudden, they want a black person to lead this ridiculous party. I am black and I am offended. He is no Barack Obama, and the Republican party has a long long way to go before they will be able to unite and bring people together.

    January 30, 2009 05:56 pm at 5:56 pm |
  13. Tough as Steele

    Good luck, Michael. You are a force to be reckoned with and will lead the GOP back to its conservative values and to VICTORY.

    January 30, 2009 05:56 pm at 5:56 pm |
  14. Kevin ST Pete, FL

    As an African American, I offer my congratulation to Mr. Steele.

    But that is as far as I will go.

    It's going to take more than a milestone in history to convince me to EVER vote Republican, and the way I see it, they are STILL the same racist, bigoted, sexist, fear-mongering, greedy savadges that will kow-tow to the will of Hannity, Coulter, Limbaugh, Beck, Medved, O'Reilly and any other Neo-Con Media or talking head.


    January 30, 2009 05:57 pm at 5:57 pm |
  15. gt


    January 30, 2009 05:58 pm at 5:58 pm |
  16. willie

    Republicans still dont get it! It is not about the face of a blackman in the ledership that wins elections, but about deep and sincere love for all Americans despite the race or color. Steele's choice is not real! The Republican party of hate and divisiveness cannot fool us again except they ger rid of the 'KKK' cladded in the deceptive garment of 'evangelicals'. The nation is too much in a mess to succumb to this tactic of divide and rule. God bless America!!!

    January 30, 2009 06:01 pm at 6:01 pm |
  17. Scott

    So does that mean the GOP is no longer the party of white, rural, lower-income, lower-education, southern voters?

    January 30, 2009 06:01 pm at 6:01 pm |
  18. Tonya

    Darn, I thought they were going to pick Pookie or Ray Ray maybe next time fellows, I don't really know this young man but he must be special being the first african american to lead the RNC wait a minute you tell me it's only two black people thats a republican thats sad at least he made history lets see how many death threats he will get

    January 30, 2009 06:01 pm at 6:01 pm |
  19. hmmmm

    -------they think people are stupid

    January 30, 2009 06:02 pm at 6:02 pm |
  20. Los

    This is kinda like when NBC comes out with a show about psychic detectives then two months later FOX comes out with a show about psychic detectives.

    January 30, 2009 06:02 pm at 6:02 pm |
  21. RFO

    I like the pick but question the support he will get from the RNC.

    January 30, 2009 06:02 pm at 6:02 pm |
  22. Erwin

    Wow republicans don't get it. Do they know how unpopular this man is among minorities? way to go republicans, your party is going downhill!!!

    January 30, 2009 06:03 pm at 6:03 pm |
  23. Darren D. Johnson

    Congrat! BUT Mr. Steele, Pres Obama is USA "1"!

    January 30, 2009 06:04 pm at 6:04 pm |
  24. Sammy

    He had to back away from the idea that he was too moderate? What is up with these political parties that there is something wrong with being closer to the middle then the extremes?

    January 30, 2009 06:04 pm at 6:04 pm |
  25. Colorado Voter

    I guess black is the new black

    January 30, 2009 06:05 pm at 6:05 pm |
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