By Reid Wilson - 02/09/09 02:37 PM EST
Before members of the Republican National Committee (RNC) voted on a new chairman, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) implored the body not to get bogged down in a "false choice" between GOP centrists and conservatives.
But after five rounds of voting, the last two candidates appeared to represent just that. However, insiders said the race ultimately came down to several obscure island territories, which individually hold as much sway on the committee as mega-states like California or Texas.
The controversial RNC chairmanship race began months ago, when local media reported that a country club to which Dawson belonged had an all-white policy. The revelation caused Dawson heartburn that lasted throughout the campaign, even after he resigned from the club and pleaded ignorance of the policy.
It came back to haunt him, though, the night before the vote. In a closed-door candidates' forum, a Dawson backer asked about the country club issue in order to air it out, though a rebuttal from Michigan national committeeman Keith Butler, who is black, on the importance of the issue among African-Americans affected several key voters.
And Steele had his own problems. He had to reassure members who were concerned about his conservative credentials. Despite a solidly anti-abortion rights record, several GOPers were leery of Steele, citing his involvement with the Republican Leadership Council, a centrist Republican group.
As a result, several voters coalesced around other candidates — almost as much to stop Steele as to halt the reelection of Chairman Robert "Mike" Duncan.
On the morning of Jan. 31, as the first votes were cast, Duncan's chances ended, even as he led initial balloting with 52 votes. Steele came in with a surprising 46 votes, eliciting whoops and cheers from the audience. Dawson finished third, with 28, trailed by Michigan GOP chief Saul Anuzis, with 22, and former Ohio Secretary of State Ken Blackwell, with 20.
The whipping began almost immediately, though few voters changed their minds. Blackwell's hopes of an insurgency faded on the second ballot, when one voter defected to Dawson's camp. Duncan, meanwhile, saw his total sink as two voters each went to Steele and Anuzis.
Anuzis was banking on a late surge as an alternative for those who couldn't stomach Dawson or Steele. But as the third ballot began, no candidate had dropped out of the race, robbing Anuzis of a sense of momentum.
That turn proved momentous. Many suspected Duncan, who needed to keep momentum on his side to have any chance at keeping his job, would drop out. But, said a top Duncan backer, the chairman told his supporters he would take one more shot.
By the end of the third ballot, both Blackwell and Duncan were in freefall. Steele had taken a lead with 51 votes, picking up three Duncan backers, while Dawson was in hot pursuit at 34, snagging a Duncan supporter and four from Blackwell's team. Duncan dropped out. Anuzis picked up no votes, essentially arresting any momentum he hoped for.
More than half of Duncan's votes broke to Dawson, giving him a narrow 62-to-60 vote lead over Steele on the fourth ballot. Anuzis picked up seven votes, taking him to 31, while Blackwell remained stagnant at 15. As Blackwell approached the podium to drop out, many members recognized the race was coming to a head.
But voters were taken aback at Blackwell's endorsement of Steele, and not in a positive way. The endorsement from the podium broke RNC protocol, many said, and few were more surprised than the 15 Blackwell supporters who remained, all from the most conservative wing of the Republican Party.
In the end, virtually all of Blackwell's supporters backed Dawson over Steele, with one former backer privately calling Blackwell a “Judas” for supporting Steele over the more-conservative Dawson.
But another crucial maneuver had taken place after the fourth ballot. Representatives from the four island territories, which largely vote as a bloc to protect their interests, left Dawson's bandwagon and flocked to Steele. Many agree that if Steele had lost votes after receiving Blackwell's endorsement, his momentum would have faltered.
Instead, the eight islander votes, coupled with several more centrist Anuzis voters who wanted to block Dawson, gave Steele 79, just shy of the 85 needed to win. Dawson scooped up most Blackwell votes to finish the fifth ballot with 69, a net increase of seven, while Anuzis dropped precipitously to 20.
"From my seat, the islands, who have no senators and no voting members of Congress, were the determining factors in the race," said one Dawson ally.
With Anuzis out, Steele picked up three-fifths of his backers, mostly those from the Michigander's Northeastern and Midwestern bases. It was enough, on the sixth and final ballot, to give Steele a 91-77 victory over Dawson.
Steele's win came at a cost, with skepticism of the new chairman still running high in conservative circles. Still, many in the GOP's grass roots are thrilled at the prospect of a more telegenic spokesman with a history of raising big bucks.
But his first week in the new position has been rocky: A Washington Post story on Saturday detailed a former campaign finance chairman's allegations that Steele campaign funds went to a company owned by his sister nearly a year after the company had been dissolved, allegations Steele vehemently denied on ABC's "This Week with George Stephanopoulos."
Steele also asked for resignation letters from virtually every staffer at the RNC late last week, a move one staffer told The Hill made his administration look like the "Steele-your-jobs" administration.
But the Washington native, who has ascended to the top of the Republican hierarchy and will be one of his party's ubiquitous faces, has an early opportunity to notch a big, though largely symbolic, win.
Steele has said several times he places a priority on winning New York's 20th congressional district, vacant after Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D) ascended to the upper chamber.
The heavily GOP territory outside Albany, which Gillibrand won from an ethically challenged Republican in 2006, could be an early starting point from which Steele could claim the GOP comeback has begun.
Steele's tenure, to outsiders, looks likely to start with a victory. To insiders, especially those who opposed Steele, it began with members from island territories that carried the same three votes each as California, Texas, Florida and New York combined.