WASHINGTON-In the same ballroom where the Republican National Committee mourned John McCain's loss last Nov. 4, members of the RNC elected a new chairman in an effort to become a party that wins national elections.
Instead of dancing under chandeliers to Americana music like on the Election Night, delegates at the Capital Hilton huddled in whispered negotiations as the vote for the new party leader dragged on for several hours.
Five candidates vied for the chairmanship: incumbent Mike Duncan, Michael Steele, Ken Blackwell, Katon Dawson, and Saul Anuzis. A sixth candidate, Chip Saltsman, dropped out of the race with little explanation before the meeting began. He had faced public furor over a controversial CD he sent to RNC members over the holidays.
In the first five votes, no one candidate received the 85 majority votes needed from the 168 Republican delegates. Finally, on the sixth vote, Steele emerged victorious, becoming the first African-American chair in party history and one who many delegates consider the most eloquent speaker among the candidates.
"As a little boy growing up in this town, this is awesome," said Steele after his win.
"The winds of change are blowing at the RNC," said Duncan after withdrawing his name following the third inconclusive vote. Privately, Anthony Demonte, a guest at the meeting from Illinois, said about Duncan: "If you lose your elections, it's time for new blood."
The GOP delegates voted for a new direction after significant losses in consecutive local and national elections. Katon Dawson from South Carolina was Steele's final challenger, and garnered many Southern votes, but not all. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, speaking to the assembly Thursday, worried that the GOP was becoming a regional party instead of a national one-and Dawson's win over Steele would have painted Republicans as a party for white Southerners, party officials said privately.
"The fracture here-the party isn't sure where they want to go," said Hank Werronen, an RNC member from Washington, D.C., during the five-hour vote. "People say we need to broaden the party, but this party isn't clear how to do that."
Republicans have lagged behind Democrats on communication-in articulating their message and in using new media on the internet, and the five candidates agreed. Image, Steele said, has also been a problem.
"We've been misdefined as a party that doesn't care," he said, reminding everyone that Abraham Lincoln was a Republican, and Republicans were behind causes like women's suffrage.
The chairman candidates also agreed that the GOP base must grow to include other groups, like Hispanics, who often have conservative values. But few could articulate how that might happen. Steele has advocated a more grassroots approach to politics, saying the party will function in a "bottom-up" effort. Steele's supporters said he will bring a "big tent" philosophy to the party, seeking out all different types of people, and Steele specifically mentioned minority groups.
"We're going to say to friend and foe alike: 'We want you to be a part of us,'" Steele said. "And to those of you who wish to obstruct, get ready to get knocked over."