WASHINGTON, D.C.-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 as they did on Election Night, delegates at the Capital Hilton huddled in whispered negotiations as the vote on five candidates for the new party leader dragged on for several hours.
"The winds of change are blowing at the RNC," said incumbent chair Mike 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."
As evening came, delegates finally elected Michael Steele, former lieutenant governor of Maryland and an RNC outsider, to become the party's first African-American chairman-a vote to salvage the party's image after the 2006 and 2008 elections increasingly marginalized the GOP. In the final stages of the chair election, the delegates discussed the need to elect a symbol of new ideas-so when the final vote came down to Steele and a South Carolinian, Katon Dawson, who withdrew his membership in an all-white country club just before the campaign began, the majority went for Steele.
That majority included some Southerners: "I didn't sign up to be a member of a regional party," said Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky in remarks to the RNC before the election.
Steele entreated his Republican colleagues to remember they are the party of Lincoln, not the "big business" party, but a party that cares about justice and freedom. Steele, having grown up in Washington, D.C., which is nearly 100 percent Democratic, and having worked in the area most of his life, knows how to operate as Republican in the minority. At one point his name was in the hat as a possible running mate for John McCain. President Obama, when Steele ran for a Maryland Senate seat in 2006, called him an "amiable fellow" without much of a resumé-after his RNC win, Steele said he wants to ask Obama, "How do you like me now?"
Just as Steele's election seemed to indicate Republicans want a fresh start, Steele cleaned house at the RNC as soon as he took the job, asking for the resignations of almost the entire staff, which isn't unprecedented. He added some of his former opponents to his advisory group.
Republicans hope Steele will fix the party's inability to communicate with middle-class America and to win demographics-such as Hispanics-that express conservative values but have voted Democrat in recent elections. He has also begun, like Obama, delivering periodic addresses on a YouTube channel-perhaps the beginnings of an attempt to turn the tide of the recent Republican "war on the media."
"If you are a chair who has a message, you have things to talk about and not things to complain about," said Mark Hilman, an RNC delegate from Colorado.
Steele says he wants to promote a "big tent" party, reaching out to groups like pro-choice conservatives-but he does not endorse a set of centrist values. Steele is a devout Catholic and at one point in his life was in seminary to become a Jesuit priest. He insists on fiscal conservatism and is pro-life. Still, some social conservatives were concerned about his past involvement in the moderate group the Republican Leadership Council. Steele said he wanted to be a pro-life voice in a group with pro-abortion leadership.
Pro-abortion Republicans hope that Steele's election will mean less of a focus on abortion restrictions. Kellie Ferguson, executive director of the Republican Majority for Choice, said even if Steele has a pro-life position, he can reach out to moderates, especially women. The party can't win elections by "pushing wedge issues," she said.
Conservative Democrats have won dozens of long-held Republican seats in Congress over the last two election cycles, in the heart of places like Alabama and Texas, but RNC delegates don't think the electorate has shifted to embrace more liberal values-"we're still a center-right nation," said one of the chair candidates, Saul Anuzis from Michigan. The problem isn't with conservative values, he and others contend, but that the party has not communicated the way it should. For Steele, the winning communication strategy is one that President Obama used effectively in his presidential bid: a bottom-up approach, based on grassroots outreach and face-to-face campaigning.
"Michael Steele is an inspiring figure who will be able to communicate a Republican message and will not turn anybody off," said Soren Dayton, a political consultant in Washington with New Media Strategies. "Did the party want a mechanic or did the party want the spokesman? They picked a very good spokesman."
For the next election, Steele said the focus will be on retaking the Northeast, where no Republicans have seats in Congress, and the West. Hispanics are a target group especially, and Steele's Catholicism may help win the largely Catholic group.
But Hispanics won't be easy to woo, said Samuel Rodriguez, president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference. "There's a lot of hesitation and doubt as to the motives of the Republican party," he said, citing the rhetoric surrounding the immigration-reform debate under President Bush. "It's going to be a PR challenge to say the least."
Rodriguez said Steele should target Hispanic and young voters, putting campaign ads in Spanish. "We know that English is the official language," he said. "It's about the values, what we believe. Without a multiethnic constituency, the Republican party will never take the White House," he said.
Others at the RNC meeting agreed. "When President Bush won, it was all about energizing the base, "said Werronen. "This last election wasn't about getting out the base. McCain did a pretty good job of getting out the base."
Steele has said he plans to reach out specifically to minorities, and RNC delegate Ada Fisher from North Carolina says Republicans are in a good position to address minority issues that Democrats are ignoring-like drug abuse and crime in communities.
"This party has something to say to the poor of this country," Steele said. "We have been misdefined as a party that doesn't care."
Said the new party leader after his victory: "We can take that scarlet badge off and wear a very proud 'R.'"