“It’s time for something completely different,” Steele said after crossing the 85-vote threshold to win the GOP chairmanship in a 91-77 vote. The final result came in the sixth round of voting by a party still reeling from deep losses in the last election cycle — including Barack Obama’s electoral triumph over GOP presidential hopeful John McCain to become the nation’s first black president.
“We’re going to say to friend and foe alike: We want you to be a part of us, we want you to with be with us, and for those who wish to obstruct, get ready to get knocked over,” Steele told RNC members.
Steele was one of two candidates that were not established members of the RNC. The committee historically elected from within its own ranks.
In his acceptance speech, Steele focused on recruiting new members to the party, returning Republicans to power — especially in the Northeast where they do not hold any seats in the House — and staying true to the conservative values at the core of the GOP.
“We stand proud as the conservative party of the United States. And we will be sure to work hard to make sure that those principles, those values that have made us the party of Lincoln, are part of the issues, are part of the policies are part of helping set a new direction for this country,” Steele said. “We will cede no ground to anyone on matters of principle, on matters that matter to the people of this country.”
Listen to Steele’s acceptance speech:
“Michael Steele comes from the bluest of the bluest states. And he beat Katon Dawson of South Carolina, the reddest of the red states,” syndicated columnist Mark Shields said on Friday’s NewsHour. “It was the move away from what it had been before, which was the face of George Bush.”
New York Times columnist David Brooks said, “Steele is a conservative guy, but he is a guy who will say you need to have moderates [in the party].”
In electing Steele, Republicans rejected current RNC Chair Mike Duncan’s re-election bid. Duncan won the post in 2007, when he ran unopposed with the backing of President Bush. Heading into the vote, Duncan secured more pledged votes than other candidates, but ultimately didn’t garner enough support and withdrew after the third round.
“The winds of change are blowing at the RNC,” Duncan said upon withdrawal. He called serving as chair “the highest honor of my life” as the room gave him a standing ovation.
RNC members met under the theme “Republican for a Reason” in downtown Washington. The party faces the popularity of the newly-inaugurated President Obama in the White House, an expanded Democratic majority in the House and Senate and a Democratic Party energized by post-election momentum.
Steele is now charged with reinvigorating the GOP by reaching out to new voters, using new technology and winning back some seats from the Democrats.
Steele became the first black candidate elected to statewide office in Maryland in 2003, and he made an unsuccessful Senate run in 2006. Currently, he serves as chairman of GOPAC, an organization that recruits and trains Republican political candidates.
Steele is also credited with coining the “Drill, baby, drill” catch phrase about the offshore-drilling debate during the 2008 Republican National Convention in St. Paul, Minn.
Shaping a new Republican image
In the hallways of the Capitol Hilton, the buzz was all about creating change while sticking to the party’s core conservative principles.
“It is a new day for the Republican Party across this nation,” Ohio Party Chair Kevin DeWine said after the vote. “Michael Steele is a larger-than-life figure. He has a compelling life story. He will be an articulate and visionary spokesman for our party … He will go toe-to-toe on any national show. He’ll go toe-to-toe in any union hall with the other side fighting for the issues that Republicans care about, more importantly fighting for the issues the average American cares about. And that’s where this party needs to get back to.”
Joseph N. Mondello, the New York state GOP chairman, said Steele will put a “very good image on the party” and bring more attention to the Northeast.
The candidates waged a competitive campaign for the post and up until the final vote, which came in the sixth hour of the meeting, the winner remained a mystery. To win, a candidate had to reach a simple majority of 85 votes in the 168-member committee. It took six rounds for Steele to win 91 votes.
Steele won in a crowded field of five candidates: Duncan, South Carolina Republican Party Chair Dawson, who came in second, former Ohio Secretary of State Ken Blackwell, Michigan Republican Party Chair Saul Anuzis.
Blackwell, who is also black, withdrew after the fourth round but threw his support behind Steele, saying the next leader “must have the leadership and vision to pull us together and then to pull America together.”
Anuzis held out until the fifth round.
“It is amazing that a son of an immigrant who grew up in Detroit had the chance to run for chair of the RNC,” Anuzis said as he withdrew.
Steele edged out second-place finisher Dawson, a party member who ran on his experience electing Republicans in South Carolina. Dawson’s campaign took a an early hit when reports surfaced that he was a member of an all-white country club for 12 years until he resigned in September.
“That was an issue that started early on in the McCain-Obama race to be very divisive in South Carolina while we were running a campaign. When I saw that was going to be a divisive issue, I resigned. I moved forward. And, again, I have a solid record of electing minorities in South Carolina, promoting principles, funding and doing things that you should do,” Dawson said in a forum in early January, according to ABC’s The Note.
The race’s sixth candidate, John “Chip” Saltsman, the former campaign manager for Mike Huckabee, failed to qualify for the ballot. No RNC members publicly supported Saltsman after he attracted considerable negative media attention for including a song parody entitled “Barack the Magic Negro” on a Christmas CD he sent to party supporters.
NBC Chief White House Correspondent Chuck Todd said, “The GOP averted a P.R. disaster after the race came down to Steele and Dawson. It was a pretty obvious choice: Pick the African-American or the guy who had to quit an all-white country club. Had Dawson not had that negative mark on his resume, he would have won because he was a party insider.”
Defining the GOP’s core values
Friday’s election echoed the sentiments of top Republicans since their trouncing at the polls in November: the party had to return to its core values to regain power.
“I became a Republican because I believe that if you work hard and believe in yourself, there is nothing you can’t achieve. That’s the American dream. And I look forward to leading Republicans in fighting for it,” House Minority Leader John Boehner of Ohio wrote in the Washington Post on Nov. 7. “If we return to our roots, to our belief in freedom, opportunity, security and individual liberty, our party will come back stronger than ever.”
On Thursday, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky called on the party to stick to its conservative principles in his address to the RNC.
“The results of the two recent elections are real, and so are the obstacles we face as a party,” McConnell said according to the Associated Press. “My concern is that unless we do something to adapt, our status as a minority party may become too pronounced for an easy recovery.”
The GOP may also be weighing whether the party should institute a 50-state outreach plan similar to the one that former Democratic National Committee Chair Howard Dean implemented to compete in areas traditionally perceived as GOP strongholds. President Obama’s campaign challenged former challenger Sen. John McCain in long-held Republican states such as Indiana and North Carolina.
But as, Ron Nehring, chairman of the California Republican Party, pointed out on Tuesday, the answer depends on how such a strategy is defined.
“Should our party concentrate resources in just a few target states or drive organization and communications capability-building across the country? The answer is both,” Nehring wrote in Politico.
In 2010’s mid-term elections, all 435 House seats are up for election, as are 38 Senate seats, including special elections in Illinois, Delaware, New York and Colorado for senators that now have positions in the new president’s Cabinet.
Other challenges facing the party are how to reach out to young and minority voters, groups that turned out heavily for Democrats in November, and how to use the Internet to reach and engage supporters as President Obama did in his campaign.
“Steele will be judged on mechanics more than optics,” NBC’s Todd wrote. “The issue for the GOP isn’t finding a new face; it’s finding a new political identity and catching up with the Democrats on the technological front. Steele may become a good spokesperson for the party — the bar’s kinda low right now as it stands. But can he raise the real money and put in place the grassroots tools necessary to make the party competitive?”
A Web site called Rebuild the Party challenged each of the candidates to endorse a plan to make Internet campaigning a priority over the next four years, build a grassroots movement and recruit candidates with a clear message with a goal of having 40 percent of new candidates under the age of 40. All but Chip Saltsman supported it, according to rebuildtheparty.com.
Steele will also wield power to help shape the 2012 nominating calendar for the party’s next presidential candidate, though none of the candidates for the job openly mentioned that, the Atlantic’s Marc Ambinder pointed out.