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. David in Colorado

    I'll begin by admitting that I am a life-long Democrat, having never voted for a Republican - but not because I completely disagree with all conservative ideas.

    What has driven me and millions of other Americans away from the GOP is their far-right social agenda, which is driven by a religious coalition that I find as dangerous to my country as Hamas or any other group of zealots.

    If Mr. Steele (whom I do admire) can neutralize the elements of theocracy that currently control the Republican party, they might survive and win over Independents and moderate Democrats.

    If he can't, the party will continue to be basically a white, Southern, mostly rural party - regardless of the race of their Chair.

    January 30, 2009 06:19 pm at 6:19 pm |
  2. Gerald Asare

    I am black and i'm proud that african american person is taking control over the GOP, however i feel this pick is is very condescending and unoriginal of them as a matter of fact tantamount to an insult.
    No imagination whatsoever

    January 30, 2009 06:19 pm at 6:19 pm |
  3. chuks

    first they picked sarah palin to tap into the hillary effect..now they put up steele to tap into the obama effect...palin failed and so will steele

    January 30, 2009 06:19 pm at 6:19 pm |
  4. A Regional Party they are

    Ya, sure, nothing to do with timing. It only took until the Democrats–and the U.S.–electing an African-American to the Presidency for the GOP to finally elect their first African-American chair. Ya, just a coincidence. Oh & compare Lincoln–and the Republican party of the 1860's–to the Republican party of the last 30+ years. Ready, Set, Go....,,

    January 30, 2009 06:20 pm at 6:20 pm |
  5. Chas

    Michael Steel and the Republican Party are crooks. Michael Steel, a former Lt. Governor of Maryland, ran against Ben Cardin for the U.S. Senate in 2006 and lost. In an effort to trick voters into voting for him, he and the Republican Party printed campaign cards saying he was a democrat. This was designed to get especially blacks to vote for him not realizing they were voting for a Republican. It did not work. Ben Cardin won the U.S. Senate seat.

    January 30, 2009 06:20 pm at 6:20 pm |
  6. Gerald Asare

    Oh yeah one more thing, hopefully he doesn't turn into a Sarah Palin

    January 30, 2009 06:20 pm at 6:20 pm |
  7. Ed Hudson

    As a moderate American who is more concerned that BOTH parties have strong leadership, I think the selection of Mr. Steele is the right one. He has proven to be a level-headed, intelligent, and truly invested individual, and he has a chance of helping the Republican party find its feet again.

    January 30, 2009 06:21 pm at 6:21 pm |
  8. Bridget

    What is Mr. Steele's opinion on the popularity of the song "Barack the Magic Negro" within his party's base?

    January 30, 2009 06:22 pm at 6:22 pm |
  9. 1fender

    I think Mr Steele could be good for America. I am a democrat and I hope he is more than either a wolfe in sheeps clothing or a puppet for the bosses of a political party that has caused America to be so polarized.

    If he indeed ends the era of the republicans being just a party of southern whites and starts focusing the party on working together to fix the damage done by the last eight years by Bush and Rove ther eis hope for America.

    If he is just window dressing for more of the same by Rove, Limbaugh and the republican thugs, Americans, and especially African-Americans will not fall for it anymore.

    January 30, 2009 06:22 pm at 6:22 pm |
  10. Proud American

    Good Lord what is the world coming too? Was this show that the republicans aren't all the way racist? But I guess you can look at the bright side the republican party will gain 4 more minorities.

    January 30, 2009 06:22 pm at 6:22 pm |
  11. phil

    CNN you are so non-partisan. Maybe if you get even more wacko you could catch up to the MSNBC wackos in the ratings. Congratulations on being in last place on cable.

    January 30, 2009 06:22 pm at 6:22 pm |
  12. pat

    Good luck Mr. Steele, you have my support. I look forward to your leadership.

    January 30, 2009 06:22 pm at 6:22 pm |
  13. L. G

    This is a prime example of pitting one black man against another black man–WHITE FOLKS HAVE BEEN DOING THIS FOR YEARS. If Obama had not been elected president–WOULD STEELE HAVE BEEN CONSIDED TO LEAD THE REPUBLICAN PARTY. He should be ashamed of himself to allow himself to be used in this manner. The Republican Party will have to do more than just elect Steele before I would ever believe they care anything about Black people or other people of color. When they finish using him, he will be pushed aside as the great black republican from Oklahoma(can't remember his name) was pushed aside. This is so sad another BLACK MAN BEING USED!!!!!!!

    January 30, 2009 06:22 pm at 6:22 pm |
  14. lilacs

    This is the male version of Sarah Palin. Only picked because the democrats and the american people have put race totally out of the picture. Took 5 times voting before they elected him. They only picked Mr Steele because the republicans have taking so much heat for there all white party.

    January 30, 2009 06:24 pm at 6:24 pm |
  15. Sharon

    Mr. Steele is way too conservative for my liberal tastes and therefore a good choice for the RNC. But if the Rs think that the Steele selection will convince minorities that the RNC has their best interest at heart, they are as clueless as McCain, who picked Palin to attract disaffected Hillary supporters. We all know how that one worked out. Good luck, Mr. Steele....you're gonna need it.

    January 30, 2009 06:24 pm at 6:24 pm |
  16. John

    I hope this Steele man will see through the antics of the anti people, anti black, Repuglicans. They want to use him as an attack dog. Black against black, not so? Not so smart. We can see through this. If he allows himself to be used that way, woe betide him.

    January 30, 2009 06:25 pm at 6:25 pm |
  17. Linda Feldman

    This feels like the choice of Clarence Thomas all over again.

    January 30, 2009 06:25 pm at 6:25 pm |
  18. THE O

    Uncle Michael does not get it, he is now the defacto chairman of a sudo-klan organisation. I wonder if he was paying attention to the campaign, and how racist this party was. There is always one person willing to be the Token to gain prominance it s very disusting and he should be ashamed of him self.......

    The Token has cometh!!!!!!!!!!!

    January 30, 2009 06:26 pm at 6:26 pm |
  19. John

    What a joke – how many votes will your new poster boy get you GOP'ers?

    January 30, 2009 06:26 pm at 6:26 pm |
  20. reggie

    Congrats to Michael Steele and America. He will do well to bring the party back to the White House and in control of congress.

    January 30, 2009 06:27 pm at 6:27 pm |
  21. D.Tin

    Congrats to the RNC for picking their first black chairman. Now it will be interesting to see the right wing conservatives rush to split the party.. those who want things to return to the way they were and those who want to move the party into reality and the future.. Where are live in the south, a red state, the comments on this choice has not been civil.

    January 30, 2009 06:28 pm at 6:28 pm |
  22. Dan




    January 30, 2009 06:29 pm at 6:29 pm |
  23. Tracy

    This should be interesting ....first Palin and now Steele. Not sure the RNC really get it. Just waiting to hear the new chants of Steele/Palin in 2012.

    January 30, 2009 06:29 pm at 6:29 pm |
  24. Chris in Va.

    The "red" state Republicans are going to LOVE this!

    January 30, 2009 06:29 pm at 6:29 pm |
  25. L.V.


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