“Here’s the worm!” says Jo-Ann Chase. She forms a claw with her right hand, miming a bird’s beak. “Here’s the baby bird,” says Chase, holding up her left hand. Her “beak” drops the invisible worm it had been holding. “That’s what the Democrats do. That’s what they stand for.”
Chase is a Republican activist and realtor from Loudon County, Virginia, here at the winter meeting of the Republican National Committee as a non-voting guest. Eight years ago her party held every statewide office, both U.S. Senate seats, and eight of 11 U.S. House seats. Her governor, Jim Gilmore, was the part-time chair of the Republican National Committee. In the eight years since then her party has been dealt a series of humiliating defeats, most recently the 53-47 victory of Barack Obama over John McCain after McCain’s campaign had dismissed Democratic voters in the state as non-citizens of “the real Virginia.” It is the sort of state that could use some kind of Republican comeback.
According to Chase, what the Republicans needed was more clarity, more conservatism, and more exposing of how the Democrats wanted to run people’s lives — how they wanted to decide which baby birds got the worms. “I supported Mitt Romney, because John McCain was not a real conservative,” Chase said. Chase has been given new hope by her party’s unanimous vote in the House of Representatives against the stimulus package. Going into today’s vote for Republican National Committee chairman, Chase supported Katon Dawson, the conservative head of the South Carolina Republican Party. “He’s a fantastic messenger,” Chase explained. “You know where he stands.”
On Friday, the party voted down Katon Dawson and elected Michael Steele of Maryland as its first African-American chairman. The vote was not close — Steele won with 91 of 168 votes — but the process was endless, taking six ballots, as members of the RNC pondered whether to reject one of their own for the more famous Steele.
Steele’s race made the headlines, and in the end it helped him win. But of the three black members of the RNC, two backed Dawson and one backed white Michigan GOP chairman Saul Anuzis. After the vote, some black supporters of Dawson were heard grumbling that the party had chosen color over character. Steele’s victory was a compromise within the party, a vote by a base that wants to win by vigorously obstructing the agenda of President Obama, but realizes that doing so will require a smoothness and a charisma that has escaped Republicans of late.
Monday began with Republican voters slowly making their way to the main hall of the Capitol Hilton, the nerve center of this year’s convention. As he waited for the vote, Dr. Doug McKinney, the chairman of the West Virginia GOP and a supporter of Steele, struggled to think of a political figure whose speaking style and popular support could compare to that of President. “Not since Hitler, I’d say.”
Jessica Colon, the chairwoman of the Young Republican National Federation, pushed the results of a survey that showed youthful conservatives alienated from the GOP, but she was less worried about Obama’s influence. “That group of 18-29-year-old voters who broke 2-1 for Obama… that group is loyal to a person,” said Colon. “Not loyal to a party.” Colon hoped that “full-bodied conservatism” and statements like the unanimous anti-stimulus vote would help rebuild the party’s brand. Asked who the leading voice in the GOP might be now, she suggested Sen. John Cornyn of Texas.
Nominating speeches began late, in soft tones, with no attacks on rival candidates, and some references to a final, Thursday night candidate forum that the press was not invited to. There was a strategy to this. While endorsers of Mike Duncan, the incumbent chairman, appealed to RNC members for their loyalty to a chairman who had risen through the ranks, endorsers of Dawson, Steele, Anuzis and Ohio Republican Ken Blackwell argued that the party was failing, and that the next chairman needed to get out of the office and reach out to voters who don’t really like Republicans.
Dawson and Anuzis were both nominated by black supporters: Keith Butler, a Michigan backer of Anuzis, had seen his friend go into “into the ghetto, into the barrio” for votes. Steele’s endorsers asked Republicans to consider how their vote would look “outside” of the meeting-a none-too-subtle suggestion that rejecting a black candidate for Dawson or for Mike Duncan would be a PR disaster.
“Can you imagine if it comes down to Dawson and Steele?” said Republican tech guru Patrick Ruffini. It was a rhetorical question. Obviously, that would be a train wreck.
When the first ballots were counted at noon, Duncan narrowly led Steele, 52 votes to 46 votes, with the three other candidates bunched up in the twenties. As the balloting ground on, Dawson slowly picked up support and Duncan slowly lost it. It was clear that the young Republican’s nightmare scenario was coming true-when Duncan dropped out and word spread that his votes would mostly break for Duncan, a minor panic broke out.
But the problem with Dawson was purely cosmetic. He is a southerner who’d belonged to a whites-only country club and had once credited a painful experience with integration and school busing with turning him into a Republican. And this was coming after a week of liberals blasting Republicans as the party of Rush Limbaugh.
“Democrats just love to portray Republicans in the worse possible light,” said Bob Tiernan, the chairman of the Oregon Republican Party. “That’s what they’re doing when they invoke Rush Limbaugh. They want us to be perceived as the party of old white guys.” After Steele’s victory, Tiernan rushed to take a photo with the new chairman. “I have kids in their 20s and when they see Michael Steele, they say: that’s who should represent the Republican Party. He is the face of the GOP. We proved that — we voted for him.”
The irony is that Steele does not go easier on the Democrats than his rivals. In Maryland, and on national television, he has perfected the art of attacking Democrats as political hacks who take their voters for granted, who have run America’s cities for decades with policies that sped their decline, and who are more interested in making voters dependent on the government then in growing the economy. It’s the argument that all mainstream Republicans, Limbaugh included, make about the Democrats. But it sounds infinitely more credible coming from someone like Steele, who view his ascension as proof that they are colorblind.
“This isn’t a big deal for Republicans,” said Saul Anuzis after Steele’s win. “We don’t think that way about race. He was the best candidate for the job, who happened to be black, in a field that included two black candidates.”
But it was a big deal. After the vote, one Republican staffer bragged that “the Democrats don’t have a monopoly on historic moments.” At Steele’s post-victory press conference, the first question concerned comments Steele had made in 2006 about the Republican “R” being a scarlet letter, and understanding why Hurricane Katrina had hardened black opposition to the GOP. “That’s a totally irrelevant question,” one Republican muttered.
Steele opted for drama. “Some say it’s a historic moment,” he said. “I say it’s just another step forward for the party of Lincoln.” Then he repackaged the philosophy of Republicans like Jo-Ann Chase, arguing that the party’s image was rotten in 2006 and 2008 because it “forgotten those principles” that voters had liked. When a conservative reporter asked him to comment on Rush Limbaugh, Steele said that “Rush Limbaugh has a first amendment right,” and that Democrats were overstepping when they picked on him. This is the message of John Boehner and John Cornyn, but the spokesman is someone that blue state Republicans can’t wait to show to their voters.
When the press conference ended, Steele hung around for a lengthy series of photos with RNC members and fans. “History, history!” he said. “Good stuff! Now let’s get to work.”