WASHINGTON — The Republican National Committee selected former Maryland Lt. Gov. Michael Steele, an African-American, to be its new chairman in a selection that augurs a major effort to reach out to minority voters.
Steele won with 91 votes — 85 were needed — after the current chairman, Mike Duncan, a close ally of former President Bush and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, dropped out.
Duncan decided to step aside as he noticed a groundswell of support for Steele, who's a moderate in Republican circles. The choice still required several ballots.
Steele's closest competitor was South Carolina Republican Party Chairman Katon Dawson, a conservative.
After his selection, Steele promised that he would lead the party to victories again in the northeast, where there are no Democratic House members.
He also vowed he would lead the party in a new direction, though he repeatedly acknowledged the party's conservative wing and pledged to meld those values with the RNC's renewed push to become more inclusive of other views and ethnic groups.
There is little room for divisiveness, he warned.
"To those who believe in the conservative principles that have made us what we are, itt's time for something completely different," he said. "And for those who wish to obstruct, get ready to get knocked over."
For African American Republicans, Steele's election sends a strong signal that the party will do a better job of reaching out to minorities.
"In the 21st century, the Republican party realizes and America realizes that the party needs to change," said Johnnie Morgan, a member from Los Angeles.
Ron Kaufman, an RNC member and advisor to several Republican presidents, said the battle to head the RNC reflects ideological differences on the party's direction.
Steele received a standing ovation as he took the podium and thanked the gathering for their support. "I thought this would be good for the party and it has been," he said of the competition for the post.
The race revealed a split in where members feel the party should go — a theme that was also reflected in the November elections.
On Thursday, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, the Republican party's top elected official in Washington, called on members to broaden the party's appeal, noting that both rich and poor and most minority voters "no longer pay attention" to the party.
On Friday, conservative talk radio and blogs were abuzz with criticism of McConnell's stance.