Yesterday, Maryland’s former Lieutenant Governor Mike Steele became the new NRC Chairman, defeating South Carolina Republican Party Chair Katon Dawson in the sixth round of balloting. Earlier ballots had led to the withdrawal of other high-profile candidate, including current Chairman Mike Duncan.
Getting elected was the easy party. Steele now faces the quite daunting task of rebuilding an unpopular party that is locked out of the White House and is in a deep hole in both chambers of Congress.
What does Steele’s victory mean for American politics and for the future of the Republican Party?
The most appropriate answer, of course, is that there is no way to know before we see Steele at work. Maryland’s former Lieutenant Governor is no RNC insider and he has a somewhat conflicted relationship with conservative activists, so will he be able to exercise sufficient authority? Will he fundraise effectively? Will he be able to rebuild the GOP infrastructure, develop adequate strategies to oppose Barack Obama? It will take time to answer these questions. After all, few people expected that Howard Dean would be such a good chairman of the DNC; his backers might have expected him to steer the party in the right direction - but did they foresee how effective a grassroots operation he would be able to build?
At the very least, we know that Steele was among the best communicators of the Republican field, and that will matter since one of the main duties of a RNC Chairman is to represent the GOP on cable news and on Sunday’s political shows. Steele’s victory has already gotten Chris Matthews to admit that he voted for him in Steele’s failed senatorial bid in 2006 (and Matthews wanted to run for Pennsylvania’s Democratic nomination?).
There are certainly other important points we can make already - whether on the politics of race, the declining influence of the South and the GOP’s ideological civil war.
Coming less than two weeks after Obama’s inauguration, the symbol of the GOP electing its first African-American leader is certainly a meaningful - and substantive - development. For one, it underscores the GOP’s fear at possible racial undertones in its criticism of Obama. This concern was heightened by the fact that Steele’s opponent in the last ballot (Katon Dawson) had belonged to an all-white club and had said he had been moved to politics by his opposition to busing.
Furthermore, Republicans are surely aware of their need to reach out to minorities. The magnitude of the party’s losses in 2006 and in 2008 can be attributed to a dramatic swing to the left of the Hispanic community and to historic turnout among African-Americans. Republicans have been talking about fixing those trends for much of the decade, of course, so it is unlikely that they can regain the trust of minorities simply by electing an African-American leader (Mel Martinez’s term as RNC Chairman did not help, after all), but they can’t be blamed for trying. At the very least, they avoided the public relations disaster of opening the Obama era by electing an all-white club member.
“Insider vs. outsider” rather than “conservative vs. moderate”
Steele is often being described as the most moderate candidate of the RNC race, and he certainly was not as far too the right as some of his competitors - whether Dawson or Ohio’s former Secretary of State Ken Blackwell. Furthermore, Steele drew opposition from conservative activists in the final weeks of the race; memos were circulated, for instance, about Steele’s contacts with Log Cabin Republicans.
That being said, Steele is undoubtedly a conservative - not only by Maryland standards, but also by national one. For instance, Steele got a ringing endorsement by Fox News’s Sean Hannity, who proclaimed him to be the “best kind of conservative.” Saying that others were further to the right does not say that much when the others are party chairs and grassroots leaders.
If anything, Steele’s status as an outsider running against figures of the Republican establishment (whether Dawson or Duncan) is far more relevant than his ideological positioning - and it is this status that made Steele acceptable (perhaps even desirable) by the party’s right. Conservative activists want to bring the party back to its root after what they believe has been eight years of ideological disarray.
What better way to usher in a new era closer to conservative principles than to kick out those who have been responsible until now and bring in new blood? Steele’s backers played on this dynamic to portray their champion as the heir of the Reagan Revolution. Steele’s election is “the most thoroughgoing change since Ronald Reagan took over the Party,” said for instance California Committeeman Shawn Steel.
Steele himself promised to bring the party back to clearer - and purer - roots. “This is the dawn of a new party,” he said. “There is not one inch of ground we’re going to cede to anybody… it’s important for us to be able to establish with clarity what we believe.”
The end of Southern hegemony?
In 2008, Obama managed to fissure the GOP’s hold on the South by carrying Virginia and North Carolina while coming close to winning Georgia. At the same time, the Deep South looked like the last refuge of a Republican Party left for dead in the Northeast and in much of the Midwest and Southwest.
Some Republican leaders started to complain that the South had too much of a hold on Republican politics, endangering the GOP’s electability elsewhere in the country. This was one of the main arguments motivating the campaign of Saul Anuzis, and one of the main arguments against a Dawson chairmanship.
Steele’s win is the logical conclusion of these concerns. His narrow victory against Dawson is first and foremost that of a non-Southern against a Southerner, and that is sure to have dramatic consequences on the future of the Republican Party. It could shift the balance of power or resource allocation within the RNC, and it could mean that Southern constituencies losing influence - starting with evangelicals - to the benefit of Republicans more concerned with a pro-business stance and fiscal conservatism.