"We're going to push the Republican Party from vanilla to butterscotch," predicted Holland Redfield, a gregarious Republic National Committee member from the U.S. Virgin Islands. Strolling across the ballroom of the Capital Hilton between the fourth and fifth ballots of Friday's RNC Chairman's election, Redfield insisted that history was in the making: "You're going to see an African-American as the chairman of this party."
Two rounds of voting later, he was proven correct. Former Maryland lieutenant-governor Michael Steele's defeat of South Carolina Republican chairman Katon Dawson on the sixth ballot was not only a symbolic first in the history of the GOP, but also an indication of the hunger for change felt by many of its downtrodden supporters. After an election cycle in which Republicans lost virtually every demographic bloc except for white southerners, Steele's election seemed to raise the possibility of building a more moderate, inclusive GOP.
But Friday's proceedings also revealed the intraparty divisions that may stifle his efforts to revitalize the party's political operations over the next two years. Steele's past involvement with the Republican Leadership Council, a socially moderate political action committee, seemed to be very much on the minds of the social conservatives in attendance, who had mostly rallied around the candidacies of Dawson and incumbent chairman Mike Duncan.
There's "not a problem with [Steele's] own stances [on social issues] so much as the groups he was affiliated with," said Steve Scheffler, a national committeeman from Iowa who was supporting Dawson. Scheffler was disturbed by the RLC's association with "far left of center organizations" in Iowa, including one that supports gay marriage. "I believe in inclusion", he insisted, but was adamant that the RNC's next chairman be sensitive to the fact that the party's "base of activists tends to be conservatives."
As party officials and volunteers devoured trays of cookies between the third and fourth rounds of voting, I spoke with a committeewoman from a southern state who echoed these concerns. On condition of anonymity, she admitted she still had strong reservations about Steele's conservative credentials and was pledging her support to Dawson. She was incredulous when asked if the GOP needed to recalibrate its message after its recent electoral setbacks, citing Republican victories in the Georgia Senate runoff and Louisiana's congressional elections. The party's present difficulties stemmed more from George W. Bush's "top-down approach" than from an absence of support among independents and Reagan Democrats, she said. "We've got to get back to being a bottom-up organization."
The degree to which party members accorded symbolic weight to Steele's victory seemed to reflect this ideological fault line. Michigan state chair Saul Anuzis, a dark horse candidate for chairman who lasted through the fifth round of voting, reiterated the conservative refrain that "rebuilding the party at the grassroots level" should be its greatest priority. "From a Republican standpoint, it's not that big a deal" to finally have an African-American chairman, he told me, citing Steele's "energy" as his most important contribution to the party. "He just happened to be black." This view was seconded by Hawaii state chair Willis Lee, who had supported Mike Duncan until his withdrawal after the third ballot. Lee believed that Steele's number one consideration should be "bringing all conservative voters to the table" and that being an African-American was irrelevant to the task. "Didn't know he was black", he quipped sarcastically. In stark contrast, Jennifer Massour, state chairman of the Massachussetts GOP, said that Steele's first concern should be "outreach to new voters - to youth, minorities, and women". She said Steele's election was a clear signal that "this is not your grandfather's Republican Party" and represents "the wave of the future" for a more inclusive GOP. David Johnson, a former Executive Director of the Florida GOP, also saw Steele's success as a potent symbol of inclusion: "Not to borrow a phrase, but this is change we can believe in."
Like our recently inaugurated President, Steele must negotiate a tortuous balancing act in his new political office. He will alienate many Republicans if he explicitly invokes identity politics, yet must use the symbolic weight of his chairmanship to increase the party's appeal across a more diverse set of constituencies. "It's unfortunate, because I feel like I'm taking advantage of his minority status", admitted Joe Trillo, a national committeeman from Rhode Island who was an early Steele supporter. Steele's success shows the GOP "is a diverse party," Trillo insisted. "We're tired of being labeled as a bunch of white supremacists." Patt Parker, President of the Maryland Federation of Republican Women, believed the optics of Steele's chairmanship could only help the party in its efforts to challenge the new President. "When we have to talk to Obama, it will be on an equal basis," she said. As committee members filed in to the ballroom for the fifth round of voting, committeeman Redfield lingered by a group of reporters to put a fine point on the challenges that will face the RNC over the next two years. When engaging President Obama and his broad political coalition, Redfield insisted that the Republican Party and its new chairman "should be like porcupines making love - very careful."