Read the Live Online discussion on MICHAEL STEELE AND THE GOP's FUTURE  with The Root's deputy editor Terence Samuel.


Oh, what a difference a black president can make. If there was any doubt that President Barack Obama's victory last November had completely transformed American politics, affirmation came Friday when Republicans—for the first time—elected a black man to chair their national party.

After years of decrying what they described as identity politics among Democrats, the GOP, in part out of concern for its image as the party of old, white people, chose cable-television sensation and former Maryland Lt. Gov. Michael Steele as chairman of the Republican National Committee.

Steele, who won the chairmanship after six ballots at the RNC 's winter meeting in Washington, characterized his win as a recognition that “it is time for something completely different.” And while there was a lot of debate about which direction the party ought to go and who should lead it there, there was no debate whatsoever that the party needs a revival after eight years of the Bush administration.

Central to the GOP's perceived troubles is the idea that it had become too insular, too narrowly cast and too lacking in diversity. In the final round of balloting Steele defeated South Carolina GOP chairman Katon Dawson, 91-77, and race was a clear undercurrent. Dawson’s fatal disadvantage may have been in the fact that he was a member of an all-white country club until he began seeking the chairmanship of the party. Some party insiders worried that choosing Dawson as their leader would simply serve to reinforce the race issues that have dogged the party for years.


In the end, enough GOP delegates were concerned to choose Steele over Dawson, who is acknowledged as a more accomplished fundraiser and manager.

Despite the aesthetic progress, Steele faces a formidable task in trying to revive the GOP which has, over the past two elections, lost control of both houses—Congress and the White House. Steele characterized it as an identity crisis.

"For so long, we've allowed the Democrats to define us; we've allowed the media to define us,” he said, “and so it's important for us to begin to establish with clarity who we are, what we believe as we begin to go out and take, I think, a brand new message to the American people."


Steele, who served one term as lieutenant governor of Maryland from 2003 to 2007, is the chairman of GOPAC, a political action committee charged with electing Republicans across the country. Given the Republican losses, that job clearly has not been happy hunting for the last two years, but after his hard-won victory Friday, Steele promised to expand the party.

"We're going to say to friend and foe alike: 'We want you to be a part of us, we want you to be with us.' And for those who wish to obstruct, get ready to get knocked over," he declared. "There is not one inch of ground that we're going to cede to anybody.”

Republicans have been astonished by the success and popularity of President Obama and implicit in their choice was the hope that their party may begin to present a more welcoming face to blacks and other minority voters. African Americans voted 96 percent for Barack Obama over John McCain in the last presidential election, which means that a lot of black Republicans abandoned their party for Obama. This was not something they could afford in November and is not something they can afford going forward.


In an interview with The Root, Steele faced up to the problem head on: “Yes, we do have an image problem, and it’s something that we’re going to start dealing with right away,” he said. “We need to enlist the state party chairmen, the grassroots leaders of our party, to take our message—a conservative message—directly to the black community. We are going to show up in the black community. We’re going to spend time in the black community and we’re going to spend money in the black community. And, most importantly, we have to reach out to black media.”

It would be hard to overstate the difficulty he faces, given the president's general popularity—particularly among African Americans.

Steele, who will ultimately be judged by his success in electing Republicans, will get his first real test in the 2010 midterm elections, but today his prospects look bleak. A new Diageo/Hotline poll released this week showed that 46 percent of respondents say they would support a House Democrat in the 2010 elections, compared with 22 percent who said they would vote for a Republican. That 24-point spread is the crux of Steele's problem, and he must begin to address it immediately.


In the Senate, things could be even dicier than the generic polling in the House suggests. While Democrats have to defend 20 seats and Republicans must defend 19 in 2010, the Democratic incumbents seem to be on much more solid ground. Democrats are likely to go into 2010 with 59 Senate seats, one short of the magic 60-vote threshold that would allow them to routinely end filibusters.

While the president's party often loses seats in midterm elections and while Democrats must also now defend four more seats in special elections because of Senate appointments to the Obama Cabinet, Steele may be getting ready to preside over a period during which things get worse for the GOP before they get better.

Terence Samuel is deputy editor of The Root.

Read the Live Online discussion on MICHAEL STEELE AND THE GOP's FUTURE  with The Root's deputy editor Terence Samuel.