Is the RNC Ready to Elect Its First Black Chair?

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This week, 168 Republican National Committee members will cast votes to elect a new chairman. The election will take place during a period in which the Grand Old Party is feeling, well, not so grand, in the aftermath of two brutal election cycles that pushed it into the minority and out of the White House.

“It’s an important race because Republicans as a whole are taking a hard look in the mirror to figure out what they’re going to do in the future. [The result] will be a good indication of what direction the high ranking members of the RNC are looking toward,” says Brian Darling, director of Senate relations for the conservative-leaning Heritage Foundation.

Among the six contenders vying to lead the party out of its abyss are two African American candidates: former Maryland Lieutenant Gov. Michael Steele and Kenneth Blackwell, a former Ohio secretary of state and current vice chairman of the RNC’s platform committee. Although Steele and Blackwell both lost their respective bids to for the U.S. Senate and Ohio’s governor’s mansion in 2006, each claims he’s exactly what the party needs to reinvigorate itself.

Incumbent Chairman Mike Duncan is currently leading the race, however, with 25 committed supporters. Steele trails him with 17 supporters, while Blackwell is in fifth place with 10 commitments. Eighty-five votes are needed to win the race on the first ballot.

The RNC’s 2009 winter meeting, themed “Republican for a Reason,” starts today and runs through Saturday at the Capital Hilton in Washington D.C. Voting for the chairman will take place on Friday.

Grassroots vs. conservative base

Of the two black candidates, Steele is considered to have the more superior communication skills. He believes the key to setting the party on the right path lies at the grassroots level, whether the goal is to attract the right candidates for elective office, young voters, or minorities. He’s also considered to be more moderate than Blackwell, which could hurt him, but as a former chairman of Maryland’s state Republican Party, he may be more closely connected to the members who will be voting.

Steele was the first African American to serve in a Maryland state-wide office and the first Republican lieutenant governor in the state since the position was created in 1970.

He believes that by following the example of Democrats and taking a more hands-on approach, in person and online, “the policies and the issues [will] take care of themselves because then you know what you’re fighting for and who you’re fighting for.” At a debate earlier this month, Steele challenged his competitors to stop talking about diversity and start showing up in the neighborhoods and communities. Anything else, he added, is “just noise.”

The more ideological Blackwell believes the starting point for rebuilding the party is with its conservative base and says that its conservative values of individual freedom, limited government, and free markets are what will

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