RNC Elects Michael Steele As Chairman

The Republican National Committee picked former Maryland Lt. Gov. Michael Steele as its new chairman. Steele, the party's first African-American chairman, beat four challengers, including Mike Duncan, the incumbent.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is All Things Considered. I'm Robert Siegel. The Republican National Committee has a new chairman today. Former Maryland Lieutenant Governor Michael Steele was elected after six ballots. He's the first African-American to lead the party, and Steele told party members to get ready to do battle.

Mr. MICHAEL STEELE (Chairman, Republican National Committee): We're going to bring this party to every corner, every boardroom, every neighborhood, every community. And we're going to say to friend and foe alike, we want you to be a part of us, we want you to work with us. And for those of you who wish to obstruct, get ready to get knocked over.

(Soundbite of applause)

SIEGEL: Republicans are facing an uphill climb to regain power in Washington and around the country. Electing a new RNC chairman, they say, is one of the first steps on that road. And joining me now is NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson. Hi, ya.

MARA LIASSON: Hello, Robert.

SIEGEL: What happened today? Why six ballots to elect an RNC chair?

LIASSON: Well, there were six candidates, and they needed 85 votes to win. And there were 168 members of the RNC who were voting, so they had to keep on voting until somebody got 85, and the candidates basically fell like dominoes until finally it was down to two - Katon Dawson, the South Carolina state chair, and Michael Steele. And Michael Steele finally got over 85.

SIEGEL: Well, tell us about Michael Steele and what he represents.

LIASSON: Huge, huge change is what he represents. You know, the Republican Party got 4 percent of the African-American vote in the last election. He's not only African-American, he's relatively moderate, he's from the East Coast, he's a Roman Catholic. As you said, he was the former lieutenant governor of Maryland, also a Senate candidate. He's a fluent television performer, a new face for the Republican Party in the age of Obama. And as Steele himself said today, it's time for something completely different, and we're going to bring it to them. He has a huge nuts-and-bolts job to do to rebuild the party after two terrible cycles.

SIEGEL: Yeah. How would you describe what the party has to do to - well, to reposition itself?

LIASSON: Well, they've gone from a 30-seat majority in the House in 2004, now they have a 77-seat deficit there. They went from a 10-seat majority in the Senate, now they barely have enough for a filibuster - 41 votes, and they could lose that if Al Franken wins the recount in Minnesota and if in New Hampshire, Judd Gregg, the Republican senator there, accepts President Obama's offer to be commerce secretary.

But I think the short answer is what Steele promised today. They need to avoid becoming a Southern, white, regional party. They have to start appealing to Hispanics and young people, the fastest-growing segments of the electorate, and, while staying true to their small-government principles, they have to come up with Republican answers to the big problems of the 21st century, which are income inequality, global warming and the economic crisis.

SIEGEL: Well, when you talk about the margins that the Republicans have lost in both houses of Congress, the problems the Republicans face are easy to see. Are there any bright spots for this party?

LIASSON: Well, there are some bright spots. Republicans are feeling that the worst may be over - 2006 and 2008 were so bad for them, but now George Bush is not on the ballot anymore. That was a great source of Democratic anger and it drove Democrats to the polls in large numbers. Obama isn't on the ballot either, and you saw what happened to Democratic turnout in the post-Election Day runoff in Georgia, for instance, in the Senate race, where Democrats didn't turn out once he wasn't on the ballot.

They've also won a special election in Louisiana for William Jefferson's seat. They're very optimistic about winning back Kirsten Gillibrand's house seat in New York State. She's just been named to take Hillary Clinton's Senate seat. And historically, the first mid-term after a presidential win, that party that has the White House usually loses seats in the House. So, those are all things that Republicans are kind of hanging on to to boost their optimism.

SIEGEL: NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson. Thank you, Mara.

LIASSON: Thank you, Robert.

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