(CNSNews.com) – Words like “hope” and “change” peppered conversation on Friday as the Republican National Committee (RNC) gathered in Washington, D.C., to elect its new chairman, and when the votes were counted and Michael Steele claimed victory, and became the first African-American to lead the Grand Old Party.
“As a little boy growing up in this town, this is awesome,” Steele said as he accepted the chairmanship in front of a cheering crowd that was happy to stake its claim to a historic election. “It’s with a great deal of humility and a sense of service that I accept and appreciate and thank all of you for the opportunity to serve as the next national chairman of our great party.”
It was a roller coaster election, with six ballots cast and Steele earning only six more votes than the 85 needed and defeating his sole opponent in the last contest, Katon Dawson, head of South Carolina’s GOP.
When the voting started well before noon, incumbent chairman Mike Duncan took the early lead with 52 votes to Steele’s 46. Dawson had 28, Saul Anuzis, 22, and Ken Blackwell, 20.
Discussion on the floor buzzed about Steele, the former lieutenant governor of Maryland who some said might be too liberal to win. He also had been critical of George Bush, which some party loyalists disliked.
Ken Blackwell, former Ohio secretary of state, who many described as the most conservative candidate, ran fifth in a field of five, but 15 of his backers held on until Blackwell bowed out of the race before the fifth round – throwing his support to Steele.
“We need someone who can inspire hope,” Blackwell said of Steele. “We must be a party that makes good the promise of Lincoln.”
But many committee members and onlookers said when Blackwell took the stage they were still trying to absorb Duncan unexpectedly dropping out of the race after the third ballot, when he had only fallen slightly behind Steele.
“I can’t believe it,” Ann Dickinson, Missouri committee member, told CNSNews.com. “I’m in shock.”
“Obviously, the winds of change are blowing at the RNC,” Duncan said as the crowd collectively drew in its breath and then gave Duncan a standing ovation.
“It’s been the greatest honor of my life,” Duncan said of his two-year tenure as RNC chairman.
Steele supporters, sporting blue and white Steele stickers, were buoyant that their candidate was chosen as the new chairman of the GOP.
“I think it’s his ability to deliver the message,” Pat Brady, committee member from Illinois, told CNSNew.com. “We need a good messenger.”
Brady also said Steele’s independence is a virtue.
“Sometimes you need to criticize the president when you don’t think he’s doing the right thing,” Brady said.
The last candidate to drop out before the final ballot was Saul Anuzis, son of Lithuanian immigrants who said he found the American dream in a Detroit car factory and threw his hat in the ring as the head of the Michigan Republican Party.
When Steele’s 91 votes were announced, the crowd rose to its feet, and Steele made his way slowly to the stage as his supporters stopped him with hugs and handshakes.
The last time the RNC held a competitive election was in 1997 when Jim Nicholson came from third place on the first ballot in a field of seven to win the chairmanship.