Michael S. Steele, whose sixth-ballot victory Friday made him the first black leader of the Republican Party, immediately began mending fences within the Republican National Committee and showing conservative leadership muscle after the long and nasty five-way contest for chairman.
The former Maryland lieutenant governor has already told one of his chief rivals, conservative businessman and former Michigan Republican Party Chairman Saul Anuzis, that there will be a place for him in helping to run the RNC under Mr. Steele’s chairmanship.
“He wants me to be part of it, no specifics,” Mr. Anuzis told The Washington Times on Saturday. “We’re to talk next week.”
Mr. Steele also is seeking to erase doubts that he could establish himself as a conservative leader willing to offer help and direction to Republican lawmakers and chart the party’s comeback.
Right after breakfast with RNC members at the Capitol Hilton Hotel in Washington on Saturday morning, Mr. Steele flew to the House Republican retreat at the venerable Homestead resort in Hot Springs, Va. He urged Republican lawmakers to remain steadfast in their opposition to the Obama administration’s $819 billion stimulus measure as they hammer out strategy for the new Congress.
Oklahoma Republican Chairman Gary Jones, a social conservative who initially backed former Ohio Secretary of State Ken Blackwell in the party chairman’s race, said Mr. Steele was “brilliant” at a private breakfast Saturday morning, assuaging the most conservative members who were worried that he might lead the party in the wrong direction.
“They — we — all felt reassured afterward,” Mr. Jones told The Washington Times in a telephone interview between plane changes on his way back to Oklahoma.
Despite the standing ovations, prolonged applause and foot-stomping approval by RNC members upon his election Friday, there was considerable tension within the committee over who Mr. Steele really is and where he will lead a party that has lost two straight national elections, lacks a clear leader and is perceived as philosophically rudderless.
Mr. Steele began his first day as national chairman with several members saying that he has a number of formidable tasks ahead, chief among them to unite the ideological and regional factions in the party that have become increasingly obvious.
In particular, party officials said, Mr. Steele will have to use his considerable charm and rhetorical skills to allay the fear among conservatives in the South that he is too moderate.
“Michael Steele’s first task is to unite the factions and assuage concerns in the South that he’s a moderate,” said New Jersey RNC member and former party general counsel David Norcross. “He appears to be on his way to doing just that.”
“Definitely, Michael’s first job is to mend fences, and I told him that before breakfast today,” Mr. Jones said.
Mr. Blackwell had won the support of prominent social, religious and economic conservatives who are not in the RNC but never emerged as a serious contender in Friday’s balloting.
Mr. Steele has “got to reassure the South, our strongest region, that he is a mainstream conservative who is not going to turn the party into ‘Democrat lite,’ ” Mr. Norcross said. “He’s got to show he is going to make our party competitive again in the Northeast but is not going to change the principles of the party to do that.”
Supporters of Mr. Blackwell, considered the most reliable social and religious conservative among the five contenders for chairman of the 168-member RNC, were stunned and in some cases angry that he endorsed his fellow African-American, Mr. Steele, after dropping out of the contest.
Anonymous e-mails and leaflets under members’ hotel room doors had painted Mr. Steele as “soft” on abortion and other social issues. Religious conservatives constitute a bloc of about a quarter of the RNC membership.
Some conservative state party chairmen had thought the logical choice for Mr. Blackwell was to endorse South Carolina Republican Chairman Katon Dawson, seen as the other leading conservative contender for national chairman.
Members such as Mr. Norcross had endorsed Mr. Dawson in the belief that as a conservative Southerner, he could best rebuild the beleaguered party in New England and parts of the Midwest and West without sparking a revolt on the right, a “Nixon-goes-to-China” strategy akin to when the lifelong anti-communist President Nixon reopened relations with Mao Zedong’s China.
Mr. Steele’s election links to Mr. Nixon in another way — it marks the unequivocal end of Mr. Nixon’s domestic “Southern strategy” for an “emerging Republican majority,” as it was called at the time.
That strategy subtly appealed to growing antagonisms over forced busing, job quotas and the perception of reverse discrimination. It helped establish an image of the Republican Party in the minds of most black Americans as not friendly to their interests.
Some Republicans now say that era is decisively over, given that a black Democrat sits in the White House and a black Republican now leads the opposition party in the country.