By: Alexander Burns
January 30, 2009 04:09 PM EST
Former Maryland Lt. Gov Michael Steele triumphed over four opponents in the race for Republican National Committee chairman Friday, giving the party its first black chairman as well as a forceful communicator at a time of political weakness.
“This is awesome,” Steele told RNC members in a victory speech. “It is with a great deal of humility and a sense of service that I accept and appreciate and thank all of you for the opportunity to serve.”
Steele emerged victorious from a lengthy, six-ballot voting process. Running against him were incumbent RNC Chair Mike Duncan, South Carolina Republican Party Chair Katon Dawson, Michigan Republican Party Chair Saul Anuzis, and former Ohio Secretary of State Ken Blackwell.
The Marylander, who entered the race in November, received 46 votes on the first ballot, but gained momentum in later rounds after Duncan faltered on the third ballot and Anuzis withdrew after the fifth. He was declared the winner after collecting 91 votes from a total of 168 on the committee.
In the last round of voting, Steele faced off against Dawson in a one-on-one contest that pitted Dawson’s insider credentials against Steele’s celebrity profile.
In past elections, the committee has been reluctant to elect a non-member to the chairmanship. But this year marked a departure from tradition, perhaps indicating the strength of the RNC’s desire for change.
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“It’s time for something completely different,” Steele said in his victory speech.
Steele’e emergence as the victor appeared to signal a desire on the committee to distance itself from the eight years of the Bush administration and put forth a new face for the party.
The election of an outsider, however, was not the only respect in which the race was unconventional. Usually a low-profile, inside-the-Beltway affair, the chairman’s race took on an outsized importance for the GOP this year after the party lost the White House and suffered heavy defeats on the congressional level last November.
For a party seeking to define itself in the post-Bush era, the chairman’s election provided a first opportunity to chart a fresh course for the GOP. And throughout the day RNC members emphasized the potentially pivotal nature of the vote.
“This may be the most important decision we ever make as members of the RNC,” Oklahoma Republican Party Chair Gary Jones said in a nominating speech for Blackwell at the beginning of the day.
Florida Republican Party Chairman Jim Greer was even more emphatic as he delivered a seconding speech for Steele.
“The eyes of the nation today are looking upon us,” he said. “This vote will be the greatest contribution you will have ever made to the Republican Party.”
In the last few weeks the election took a divisive turn as candidates began leveling harsh, below-the radar attacks on each others’ ethics and political track records. Dawson’s past membership in an all-white country club came under assault, as did Steele’s performance as chairman of GOPAC, Blackwell’s experience as secretary of state and Anuzis’s mixed track record winning elections in Michigan.
The election process was the longest in decades, indicating a lack of strong consensus behind any one contender. The last two open chairman’s races, in 1993 and 1997, went to three and five ballots, respectively.