WASHINGTON — Kentucky native Mike Duncan bowed out of a tough battle to retain chairmanship of the Republican National Committee — a move that led to the RNC electing former Maryland Lt. Gov. Michael Steele, an African-American, its new chairman on Friday.
Steele's selection as the RNC's first African-American chairman augurs a major effort to reach out to minority voters, an effort Duncan, a close ally of the Bush administration and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, struggled to broaden.
During Duncan's tenure, GOP presidential candidate John McCain got just 3 percent of the African-American vote in 2008, though he was running against Barack Obama, who became the nation's first black president.
Perhaps more telling was McCain's stumble among Hispanics, who voted more than two-to-one for Obama. In 2004, Republican George W. Bush, a former Texas governor who had made strong efforts to woo Hispanic voters, got 44 percent of that vote.
Duncan decided to step aside Friday as he noticed growing support behind Steele, one of two African-American candidates for the post. Duncan was among a crowded cast of competitors including Steele, Michigan Republican Party Chairman Saul Anuzis, South Carolina Republican Party Chairman Katon Dawson and former Tennessee chairman Chip Saltsman, who gave members a copy of a CD that included a song called Barack the Magic Negro during the holidays.
Duncan said that he was "appalled" by the song and Saltsman dropped out of the race before the 168 RNC members voted.
"I thought this would be good for the party and it has been," Duncan said of the spirited competition for the post.
Supporters wearing red campaign buttons looked crestfallen after the chairman bowed out of the race; many shied away from the press. Others were more forthright.
"There are some members who want change for change sake," Chris Taylor, Duncan's campaign spokesman, said before the final votes were cast.
Duncan did not publicly endorse a candidate after ending his own bid and he received applause as he took the podium and thanked those gathered for their support.
As the GOP regroups, the RNC chairmanship will take on heightened prominence, and Duncan fought to convince Republicans he could best represent change. Duncan's reputation as a behind-the-scenes workhorse with deep ties to the GOP's kingmakers earned him the nickname "Mr. Inside" and catapulted him to the ranks of Republican leadership.
A longtime Republican operative, Duncan help raise funds and elect Sen. Jim Bunning, former Kentucky Gov. Ernie Fletcher and every Republican president since Richard Nixon to office.
However, with the party in disarray after weathering two cycles of bruising election-year losses, Duncan found himself struggling to keep his RNC chairman position.
Over the past two elections, Republicans lost 13 Senate and 51 House seats. The party's base is shrinking as a percentage of the overall vote and Democratic voter registration is on the rise, McConnell warned RNC members earlier in the week.
The election of a new RNC chairman took place amid widespread debate about the direction of the party. The battle to head the RNC reflects ideological differences on who can best shepherd the party into a new era, said Ron Kaufman, a longtime political adviser to both former President George H.W. Bush and former presidential candidate Mitt Romney.
Kaufman said he also advised Duncan on how best to withdraw from the spirited RNC chairmanship race once it appeared he would not net the votes needed.
"Mike has always been a classy individual who cares about the committee," Kaufman said.
In selecting Steele, the party backed a self-styled moderate, who tried to appeal to black Democratic voters during his unsuccessful 2006 U.S. Senate bid. Steele campaigned with former Prince George's County Executive Wayne Curry and boxing promoter Don King.
In the RNC chairmanship race, Steele's closest competitor after several rounds of balloting was South Carolina's Dawson who hails from a state with an active conservative base.
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... it's time for something completely different," he said. "And for those who wish to obstruct, get ready to get knocked over."
Steele's selection also came a day after 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.
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.