Page last updated at 01:27 GMT, Saturday, 31 January 2009

Republican vote sends renewal message

By James Coomarasamy
BBC News, Washington

Michael Steele smiles after being elected the first black Republican National Committee chairman
The new face of the Republican party

Change has come to the Republican Party. To the top of it, at least.

For the first time in the Republicans' history (and for only the second time in the history of America's two major parties) an African American has been elected party chairman.

Michael Steele - who won on the sixth ballot at an election in Washington's Capitol Hilton hotel - will now head the effort to rebuild morale, raise funds and develop a strategy to win back majorities in the House and Senate and to retake the White House.

He is an interesting choice - and not simply because he has broken a racial barrier, at a time when the Democrats have, as their public face, a popular, mixed-race president.

Throughout his campaign for chairman, Michael Steele has had to battle charges that he was too weak and centrist for a party that's moved to the right in recent years.

Even in the hall, on the day of the ballot, you could find fliers with a drawing of a toilet roll, the name Michael Steele - and the message that being soft is sometimes good, but not for the Republican Party.

Eventually though, after a few hours of hallway deal-making, a majority of the 168 party members with the right to vote for chairman, backed him.


He was not the only one to be on the wrong end of negative campaigning.

The man he defeated in the sixth and final head to head ballot - the South Carolina Party Chairman, Katon Dawson - had himself come under fire for his membership, until recently, of a whites-only country club.

Party members were sent a mocked-up edition of the USA Today newspaper, suggesting that Democrats would be rejoicing if he won.

So what does Michael Steele's election mean?

The Republican chairman does not usually have the same profile as members of congress, but - when the party is out of power, as it is now - he can, depending on his personality, become the central figure in the party machine.

He does so not by setting policy, but by setting the political tone.

And, while Republicans were quick to dismiss the racial aspect ("Is he black? I hadn't noticed," former White House Chief of Staff John Sununu said to me with a smile, soon after the result was announced), it is no secret that they have found it very hard to reach out to non-whites.

A quick glance around the hall at last year's party convention in St Paul told its own story. November's election results told a similar one.


So, by electing Michael Steele, the Republicans have recognised the need for change.

In Mitch McConnell and John Boehner, they retained their leaders in the Senate and the House following November's election defeats.

Keeping their party chairman, too - as seemed likely at one point - would have surely sent a message, however justified, that they were lacking in new ideas.

The question now is - what new ideas will Michael Steele have and how effective will they be?

He may offer a different image, but he is still - very much - a Washington insider, if a critical one.

During his run for the US Senate in 2006, he gave an anonymous press briefing, which eventually became public, in which he bemoaned the fate of running as a Republican, saying he felt as though he was branded with the scarlet letter "R".

Changing the party's image - and its electoral fortunes - will now, in large part, be his responsibility.

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