WASHINGTON – Republicans on Friday elected former Maryland Lt. Gov. Michael Steele to lead their party, selecting the GOP’s first black national chairman. The outcome also signaled a clear break from the leadership of George W. Bush, whose hand-picked party chief was among those Steele defeated for the post.
With the Republican Party seeking a new direction after consecutive electoral defeats, members of the Republican National Committee turned to Steele, who promised in his campaign for the post to help the GOP improve upon its dismal showing among black and Latino voters last fall. Steele excited many Republicans as a potential public counterweight to President Barack Obama and a man who would help reframe the way voters view “the party of Lincoln,” as he called it.
“I would say to the new president, congratulations, it’s going to be an honor to spar with him,” a beaming Steele told reporters after his win. Referring to criticism Obama aimed at him when he ran for a Maryland seat in the Senate in 2006, Steele added, “I follow that with, ‘How do you like me now?’ ”
His victory did not come easily. Steele, who was elected Maryland first’s black GOP chairman in 2000, prevailed after more than two months of lobbying the committee’s 168 members, a contest that concluded with more than five hours of voting Friday. Republicans needed six ballots to weed out a crowded field of candidates before a majority lined up behind Steele. He drew 91 of the 168 votes in the final ballot with South Carolina GOP Chairman Katon Dawson.
The glib, 6-foot-4-inch Steele, who sported a stylish gold tie and blue pinstripe suit at his victory press conference, will provide an immediate jolt to the party’s image and a sharp contrast to the traditional image of the party’s leaders, who are almost all white.
“He is very truly the representation of the party of Lincoln,” said Joanne Young, who serves on the advisory committee of the Washington, D.C., Republican Party and attended Friday’s vote. “He will reach out to women and moderates. It’s a very positive message for the country to have an African-American who is at helm of the Republican Party.”
Steele’s victory could also inspire a more aggressive effort to woo moderate voters. Steele, who was born in Washington, D.C., and lives in its suburbs, is in the mainstream of Republican thought on almost every major issue, but has also been a leader of the Republican Leadership Council, a group that embraces GOP candidates who support abortion rights.
“We have an image problem,” Steele said. “We’ve been misidentified as party that is insensitive, a party unconcerned about the lives of minorities. I’m saying enough’s enough, that day is over.
“This is the dawn of a new party moving in a new direction with strength and convention,” he added.
As RNC chairman, Steele will raise money, recruit candidates and appear on television to advocate for his party. A frequent debating partner is likely to be the recently elected Democratic National Committee chairman, Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine.