Steele Takes Party Chairmanship

Jan 30, 2009 4:11pm

ABC News’ Rick Klein and Teddy Davis Report: Former Maryland Lt. Gov. Michael Steele was elected chairman of the Republican National Committee today, giving the GOP its first African-American leader as the party seeks to reframe its identity under the presidency of Barack Obama.

Steele won after five rounds of balloting, beating four other candidates who sought the chairmanship. He finished with 91 votes in the final round — six more than the threshold required to win election — compared with 77 for Katon Dawson, the chairman of the South Carolina Republican Party.

“This is awesome,” Steele told RNC members after winning the two-year term. “It’s time for something completely different. . . . We’re going to bring this party to every corner, every boardroom, every neighborhood, every community. And we’re going to say to friend and foe alike, ‘We want you to be a part of us, we want you to work with us. And for those of you who are ready to obstruct, get ready to get knocked over.’ ”

The new RNC chairman faces the task of rebuilding a party that finds itself out of power on both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue.

Steele has strong conservative credentials on social and fiscal issues. But he was cast as a moderate in the chairman’s race because of his former service on the board of the Republican Leadership Council, a centrist group.

Unlike the state party chairmen who were running, he also has little experience building party infrastructure — an area of concern for many inside the GOP.

Diversity was on the minds of several RNC members, particularly after an election in which Republicans struggled to win the support of black and Hispanic voters.

“If the party is not prepared to go in that direction, you’re looking at a dinosaur. Whoever gets elected can’t look like me,” said Holland Redfield, the RNC committeeman from the US Virgin Islands, who is white. “The message has got to be not because we need their votes. It has got to be because it is the right thing to do.”

Steele built a following through extensive television news appearances, including a role as a commentator on the Fox News Channel. He gave a popular speech at the Republican National Convention last year, where his chants of “Drill, baby, drill” became something of a rallying cry.

Three other candidates — outgoing Chairman Mike Duncan, Michigan GOP chief Saul Anuzis, and former Ohio Secretary of State Ken Blackwell — dropped out after disappointing showings in earlier rounds of balloting.

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