On the second day of the general session of the meeting of the Republican National Committee, the voting to select the new Chairman began at 10:30 am and made it through 6 ballots before former Maryland Lieutenant Governor Michael Steele won with 91 out of the 168 votes, beating out Katon Dawson of South Carolina. The RNC Chairmanship is an important position which oversees the management of party resources and strategies, both of which will be very important for the GOP in this rebuilding period.
During the course of the voting Steele was always in the top two, initially in a near tie with incumbent chairman Mike Duncan and then when Duncan dropped out after the 3rd round of balloting, he was neck and neck with Katon Dawson. Duncan dropping was a bit of a surprise as he was in the lead, but he may have seen the momentum of the more conservative candidates shifting to Dawson.
As Dawson took a 2 vote lead, one of my fellow watchers commented that he was "very disappointed to hear that the member of a whites-only, no-jews country club is in the lead for RNC Chairman," referring to a controversy which emerged last week over Dawson's membership in an exclusive South Carolina country club. Another observed that if Dawson wins, "stick a fork in us, we're done."
The key turning point came after the 4th ballot when Ken Blackwell dropped out of last place and rather than endorsing Dawson he went with the more moderate Steele. His votes gave Steele a 79 to 69 lead, leaving Michigan GOP Chairman Saul Anuzis as the potential kingmaker, with 20 votes which could push either remaining candidate to the 85 votes needed to win.
After the fifth ballot Anuzis also dropped out, but rather than picking a winner with an endorsement, he announced he would support whoever won, leaving delegates with a brief break to make deals and discuss options before what would have to be the final ballot between Steele and Dawson. When they returned, most of the Anuzis votes went to Steele, who brought in a 91-77 victory to become the new Chairman of the Republican Party.
Steele inherits a challenging job, running a party in disarray, with factions struggling to see who can seize the mantle of reform and rebuild the party. Steele will be faced with the difficult tasks of bringing these factions together somehow, while reaching out to a very angry and alienated grassroots and finding ways to bring the Republican message to independents and new voters.
Steele's ability to broaden the appeal of the party is enhanced by his personal charm and excellent speaking skills. It also helps that he is both an African-American and a practicing Catholic, factors which help to insulate him from some criticism from liberals. Steele is seen as a moderate, and has pledged to work to unify the party, reaching out to both the grassroots and potential new party members.
Steele's victory is an important milestone for the Republican party, not just because he is black, but because as a self-styled "Lincoln Republican," he may be able to bridge the gap between party moderates and more libertarian and conservative elements. Among those I discussed the results with as they came in, there seemed to be guarded enthusiasm from all quarters and perhaps a bit of wariness from the most religious and most conservative. One observer summed it up well when he commented: "Mike Steele was not my candidate but after his acceptance speech I said to myself, 'I think they chose a good man."
Steele has the opportunity to set the party on a new course towards a brighter future, if he can put aside the politics of complacency and arrogance and return the party to its traditional emphasis on economic prosperity, fiscal responsibility and individual liberty.
C-SPAN carried the whole vote live on the web and on cable.
MSNBC had a laughably un-prophetic write-up of the race which came out right before voting started.