“This is the dawn of a new party,” Steele said at a press conference following his victory. “There is not one inch of ground we’re going to cede to anybody.”
Steele, a former Maryland lieutenant governor, is the first African American to win the office of RNC chairman.
He vowed to dispel public perceptions that the GOP is “a party unconcerned about minorities, a party that’s unconcerned about the lives and dreams of average Americans.”
“For so long we’ve allowed the Democrats to define us. We’ve allowed the media to define us,” he said. “And so it’s important for us to be able to establish with clarity what we believe.”
Steele also had a message for President Barack Obama, who stumped for his opponent during his unsuccessful 2006 Senate campaign.
“I would say to the new president, congratulations. It is going to be an honor to spar with him,” Steele said. “And I would follow that up with: How do you like me now?”
The former Senate candidate’s election was greeted enthusiastically by members of the RNC. But his victory only came at the end of a tense, six-ballot election that ultimately became a contest between Steele and South Carolina Republican Party Chair Katon Dawson.
Steele and Dawson, who placed second and third, respectively, on the first ballot, rocketed to the top of the candidate field after incumbent RNC Chair Mike Duncan announced his withdrawal from the race following the third round of voting.
Following Duncan’s withdrawal, Steele and Dawson gained on each successive ballot until their two remaining opponents, former Ohio Secretary of State Ken Blackwell and Michigan Republican Party Chair Saul Anuzis, both withdrew from the race. On the final ballot, Steele captured 91 votes out of 168—just six more than the 85 needed to win.
That narrow victory was more than enough for Steele’s supporters.
California Committeeman Shawn Steel, a vocal backer of the new chairman, called it “the most thoroughgoing change since Ronald Reagan took over the Party.”
Andy McKenna, the chairman of the Illinois Republican Party and a member of Steele’s whip team, said Steele’s communications skills would help the GOP “again show our ideas are good for people across the economic spectrum, across the ethnic spectrum.”
And Ohio Republican Party Chair Kevin DeWine, who is one of the newest members of the RNC and stayed neutral in the race, called Steele’s election “a great day for the Republican Party.”
“I think Republicans and hopefully the voters around the country ought to see this as a significant sign of change,” DeWine said.
Steele, whose frequent appearances on Fox News have made him a familiar face to political junkies and one of the highest-profile candidates for chair, can’t exactly be called a surprise winner. But his victory upset expectations in several ways.
Though Steele was a member of the RNC during his time as chair of the Maryland Republican Party, he did not sit on the committee during his campaign for chairman. In the past, RNC members have been wary of non-members running for chairman, and many expected Duncan or Dawson to benefit from members’ resistance to electing an outsider.
Steele also faced considerable skepticism from some of the most conservative members of the RNC, who were concerned about his past association with the Republican Leadership Council, a group of moderates led by former New Jersey Gov. Christine Todd Whitman that social conservatives view as hostile to their agenda.
But Iowa Committeewoman Kim Lehman, a conservative who previously opposed Steele’s candidacy, saidSteele helped assuage concerns about his participation in Whitman’s group during a closed-door session with members on Thursday night.
“I asked him the tough question” about the Republican Leadership Council, Lehman said. “With genuine humility he gave a very great answer. We met out in the lobby afterwards and I told him that I was going to stop opposing him.”
Other Steele opponents decided to support him after Blackwell endorsed Steele in his own withdrawal speech.
“I believe that the next chairman must inspire hope,” Blackwell said as he threw his support to Steele. “[He] must be smart enough to work with the policy leaders of our party to create opportunity, must have the leadership ability and vision to first pull us together and then to pull Americans together.”
Oklahoma Republican Party Chair Gary Jones, who gave Blackwell’s nominating speech at the start of the proceedings, said the endorsement helped Steele go the final distance.
“I know Ken’s endorsement put him over the top,” Jones said. “I know it did.”
Steele was also greatly helped by the support of RNC members from the territories, such as Guam and American Samoa, who decided late in the game to swing in a bloc toward his candidacy.
Though Steele overcame enough skepticism to win a close election, he’ll still have to move quickly to build bridges to members of the committee who were loyal to other candidates, or who had what one committeeman called “questions about…[Steele’s] sincerity.”
“He needs to bring transparency and hold the line on conservative principles,” said one state party chair. “Michael is not afraid to travel, and needs to get out to rally the grassroots.”
And New Jersey Committeeman David Norcross, who supported Katon Dawson, worried that Steele’s Northeastern roots might make it more difficult for him to close the regional gap that has developed in the party, between members from bluer regions and those from more traditionally Republican areas of the country.
“I think it’s harder for a chairman from the Northeast to bridge the divide that’s happened within our party between the Northeast and the South and the Mountain states,” Norcross said. “That’s not to say Michael can’t do it. And if we’re still friends I’d be happy to grab an oar.”
Whatever challenges may lay ahead for Steele, in the next few days he’ll be doing his best to introduce himself to the country as the new leader of the Republican Party. He’s scheduled to appear on “Fox News Sunday” this weekend and his election has already drawn the attention of his opposite number at the Democratic National Committee.
Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine, who took over for Howard Dean as DNC chair, released a statement congratulating Steele on his election and, in a somewhat incongruous rhetorical turn, asking Steele to “put partisanship and the politics of the past aside to get out economy working again.”
“President Obama and the Democratic Party are answering that challenge, and I hope Chairman Steele will join us,” Kaine said.