Steele wins GOP chairmanship

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Amid prolonged cheering, clapping and foot-stamping by an unusually demonstrative and excited throng of Republican officials, former Maryland Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele on Friday became the first black chairman of the party’s national governing body.

Mr. Steele, 50, immediately left no doubt where he stands on the political-philosophical spectrum.

“Conservative principles have made us the strong and proud party we are,” he said in a victory speech after the sixth ballot gave him a 91-77 majority of the 168 members of the Republican National Committee.

Mr. Steele defeated such powerful rivals as incumbent national Chairman Mike Duncan, South Carolina party Chairman Katon Dawson and Michigan Chairman Saul Anuzis.

Right up to the eve of the vote, Mr. Steele faced down vicious, often anonymous accusations that he lacks a philosophical or ideological core and is really a social liberal.

On Thursday night, RNC members found under the door of their hotel rooms a one-page flier with the picture of a toilet-paper roll unspooling at top of the page and the headline: “Soft is fine for toilet paper but not for a chairman of the Republican National Committee.”

The leaflet went on to list things Mr. Steele said in the past about being a conservative and a moderate, and his having helped found the centrist Republican Leadership Council with Christie Whitman, a socially liberal Republican who is anathema to many on the right.

In his first words upon being elected at the Republican National Committee’s annual winter meeting at the Capitol Hilton Hotel, Mr. Steele vowed to build a party that would be competitive in every region of the country.

“It’s time for something completely different and we’re going to bring it to them,” said Mr. Steele, who was greeted in restaurant and hotel lobbies as something of a rock star by manager, staff, waiters and passers-by. “We’re going to bring this party to every corner, every boardroom, every neighborhood, every community.”

He beat two particularly strong rivals — Mr. Duncan, who had been party operative Karl Rove’s personal choice for chairman two years ago; and Mr. Dawson, who led the pack after the fourth ballot and was the other man standing when the contest finally got down to a two-man race.

Republican elders — including some Southerners — had been signaling some discomfort with the possibility of picking a Southerner as party chairman after losing significant ground north of the Mason-Dixon line in 2006 and 2008 and was getting the reputation of having reduced itself to being a regional party.

“I did not sign up for a regional party,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell warned that the RNC members at a luncheon Thursday. Earlier, Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour had told The Washington Times that electing a Southerner as the next national party chairman would enhance the impression some people have that the GOP had become a regional party.

“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,” Mr. Steele said in his victory speech.

To those who don’t want to be part of Mr. Steele’s inclusive party, he warned: “Get ready to get knocked over.”

At the election Friday, the collective embrace of Mr. Steele was crystal clear.

“This speaks volumes about the inclusiveness of the Republican Party,” former Republican National Chairman Jim Nicholson told The Times as he stood at the back of the room watching the ecstatic uproar in the Capitol Hilton ballroom after Mr. Steele’s victory was announced.

“You know — the mentality to reach out of the ranks of the RNC, which is unusual when the Republican don’t have the White House, and to elect a nonmember and an African-American to be its leader, really an extraordinary thing, against several good, competent well-known members,” said Mr. Nicholson, who knows something about the agony and ecstasy of multiballot elections. He won his 1997 chairman election on the fifth round of balloting.

Mr. Steele “can be a great voice and vision for the party — what we need,” Mr. Nicholson said.

In an interview outside the ballroom, Henry Barbour of Mississippi, who split with his uncle’s doubts about a Southern party chief and endorsed Mr. Dawson, echoed Mr. Nicholson’s enthusiasm about the Steele victory.

About 8 p.m., former President George H.W. Bush entered the hotel and ran into Mr. Steele. The two men hugged and chatted briefly before Mr. Bush headed for the elevators.

Mr. Steele’s road to victory was littered with five defeated hopefuls. First, former Tennessee party Chairman Chip Saltsman announced Thursday that he was quitting the race before the balloting, leaving five contenders.

As expected, Mr. Duncan led the pack after the first ballot with 52 votes to Mr. Steele’s 46, with the others well behind. The second round had saw Mr. Duncan fall into a tie for first with Mr. Steele, 48-48. Mr. Steele then pulled ahead of Mr. Duncan in the third round, 61-44.

After the third round of voting, Mr. Duncan read the handwriting on the wall from his declining vote count and announced that he was quitting the contest — and won a huge round of applause. He did not endorse any of the remaining candidates.

Former Ohio Secretary of State Ken Blackwell, who had the endorsements of some of the most prominent religious and economic conservative leaders but had not managed in subsequent rounds to duplicate his 20-vote first-ballot total, dropped out after the fourth round of balloting.

He took the podium to announce that he would back Mr. Steele — the only dropout to endorse a former rival. In the fourth round of voting, Mr. Dawson held the edge over Mr. Steele, 62-60.

After the fifth round, Mr. Anuzis, who had many admirers on the committee but dropped to a low of 20 votes after pulling 31 in the fourth round, pulled out without endorsing anyone.

In the sixth round, Mr. Steele trounced Mr. Dawson 91-77.

In the contest for Republican national co-chairman, the No. 2 spot on the committee, Wyoming RNC member Jan Larimore defeated Texas party Chairman Tina Benkiser.

In the race for secretary, Florida RNC member Sharon Day won over New Mexico RNC member Rosie Tripp.

Maryland RNC member Louis Pope defeated Randy Pullen, the Arizona party chairman, in the treasurer’s race.

About the Author
Ralph Z. Hallow

Ralph Z. Hallow

Chief political writer Ralph Z. Hallow served on the Chicago Tribune, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Washington Times editorial boards, was Ford Foundation Fellow in Urban Journalism at Northwestern University, resident at Columbia University Editorial-Page Editors Seminar and has filed from Berlin, Bonn, London, Paris, Geneva, Vienna, Amman, Beirut, Cairo, Damascus, Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Belgrade, Bucharest, Panama and Guatemala.

 

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