The RNC Race: Behind the Scenes

“I voted for Michael Steele on all six ballots,” West Virginia State Republican Chairman Douglas McKinney told me shortly after Maryland’s Steele was elected Republican National Chairman on Friday. “That’s probably the only time in history someone from West Virginia ever voted for someone six times in one day and did it legally!”

McKinney’s post-mortem on the marathon race at the Republican National Committee’s winter meeting was light-hearted and fun.  But it also reflected a serious component of the five-candidate race: that victor Michael Steele had perhaps the best organization of the contenders and, as the voting commenced at the 168-member RNC conclave, it was the man from Maryland who emerged as the alternative to Bush-appointed incumbent Chairman Mike Duncan.

Steele clearly benefitted handsomely from the withdrawal after the fourth ballot of the only other African American in the race, former Ohio Secretary of State Ken Blackwell.  After insisting to me he had a “multi-ballot strategy” and was in it to the end, Blackwell got out and endorsed Steele.  This led to speculation by member over a deal cut between the two.  Would Blackwell succeed Steele at GOPAC, some wondered, or would Blackwell campaign manager John Yob wind up as chief of staff to Steele at the RNC?  At this time, there is no evidence of either deal.  

Other members of the committee told me after the vote that, as much as they liked runner-up and South Carolina Chairman Katon Dawson, they were nervous about how the national press would treat Dawson’s onetime membership in a whites-only country club and thus went for Steele.

Another very intriguing component in the Steele win (he finally won by 91-to-79 over Dawson) was the vote of the four territories (Puerto Rico, Guam, American Samoa, and the Northern Marianas).  All have the same three votes as each of the fifty states and the District of Columbia (that is, a state chairman, national committeeman and committeewoman) and, on the last two ballots, all twelve of those votes went in unison for Steele.  In recognition of this, the new RNC chairman made mention of “the territories” in his victory speech late Friday afternoon.

“You could say it was ‘Brigadoon Day’ for the territories,” said Fred Radewagen, husband of American Samoa’s National Committeewoman Amata Radewagen and himself a veteran GOP campaign operative, “Like the city of Brigadoon in the Broadway musical that appears every one hundred years, the territories make a big appearance at an RNC meeting once over a lot of years.”

Team Steele — and the Exodus

Although most head counts had former Maryland lieutenant governor and GOPAC head Steele in third or fourth place, sources say he scored considerable points at a closed-door debate of the national chairman hopefuls on the night before the voting.  At that session, several sources told me, Steele made headway in assuaging doubts among conservatives that he was somehow not one of them because of praise he had given a pro-choice GOP group headed by former New Jersey Gov. Christine Todd Whitman.  (Steele, a devout Roman Catholic who once seriously considered the priesthood, opposes abortion under any circumstances except to save the life of a mother).

As expected, Duncan led on the first ballot.  But it was with an unimpressive 52 votes to 46 for runner-up Steele.  With all other contenders in the 20s, the Marylander had emerged as the “anti-incumbent.”  He tied Duncan on the second ballot (48 votes each) and then passed the incumbent chairman 51-to-44 on the third.  Huddled with Massachusetts National Committeeman and longtime Bush family political adviser Ron Kaufman outside the ballroom, Duncan knew it was time to go.  He announced his withdrawal from the podium, but did not endorse anyone.

Without argument, Dawson gained the most from Duncan’s decision.  Twenty-eight of the 44 Duncan votes went to the South Carolinian and his total actually shot up to 62 and first place.  The remaining Duncan votes were split between Steele (second place at 60) and Michigan State Chairman Saul Anuzis (third at 31).

Kaufman later told me “After Mike got out, I had to vote for Saul.  We had been friends since 1980, when he was my driver in Michigan [where they both helped George H.W. Bush win the primary].” But, Kaufman also said, he later switched to Steele.

Ohio’s Blackwell trailed the other three contenders, with fifteen votes on the fourth ballot.  It was at that point that he took to the podium and announced, he, too, was withdrawing.  He urged his supporters to back “my good friend Michael Steele,” drawing gasps from the crowd, as the two were not thought to be close or even friendly.

Did Blackwell’s fifteen votes all go to Steele and put him back in first-place?

“No, not at all,” North Dakota Committeeman and Dawson whip Curley Hoaglund later told me. “I knew where his votes were going and we did fine with them.  It was the emotion of the moment, the drama surrounding Blackwell’s speech that led other RNC members in other corners to switch to Steele.”  

Connecticut’s National Committeeman John Frey, a state legislator and Steele man, agreed, saying,  “Blackwell’s withdrawal was a key moment for Michael."

On the fifth ballot, Steele regained his lead over Dawson, with the top two contenders at 79 to 69.  Anuzis dropped from 31 votes to 20 and announced his exit without endorsing Steele or Dawson.  On the sixth and final ballot, Steele defeated Dawson 91-to-77 and thus became the top Republican spokesman in the nation.

“Clubbing” Dawson

Anuzis’s remaining votes split twelve-to-eight for Steele and Dawson.  One early supporter of his told me “I voted for Saul but later went for Steele.  I knew Michael and liked him.  Katon had been a good chairman, but they kept bringing up his membership in that whites-only country club.”

The South Carolinian’s membership in a whites-only club and how the media would deal with it ran through discussions before, during, and after the balloting.  Dawson was well-liked by fellow members, admired for taking a state party in the red and overseeing its recapture of the governorship, and win of two Senate seats and all statewide offices but one.  However, he was peppered about questions about it at the final forum (Dawson said he had quit after learning about the whites-only rule and unsuccessfully trying to get the club to change its bylaws and admit blacks) and even supporters were nervous.

“I voted for Saul on five ballots and then voted for Katon on the last,” one RNC member told me, “But, darn it all, I was nervous doing it.  Katon’s a great guy, would have made a great chairman, but this business about the club was going to hurt.”  

So after a emotional and exhausting session and some unexpected developments, Michael Steele is RNC chairman.  That the campaign that ended with his election was ugly and at times mean-spirited was evident in the members I met who still wouldn’t say who they voted for after it was all over.  When I asked Wyoming National Committeeman Diemer True who he voted for, he told me flatly “I’m not going to say.”  Arizona State Chairman Randy Pullen, the party’s new national treasurer, told me two weeks ago his choice for national chairman was “no one I’m going to tell you about.”  Would he now tell me, I asked after the vote was over.

“No, not ever,” Pullen replied with a wink.