Michael Steele assumed the Republican party chairmanship barely a month ago, promising vast changes to help the GOP successfully compete in 21st century America. One of his first forays in that quest occurred Friday night, when Steele came to DuPage County, an affluent Chicago suburb of nearly one million, where the largely Republican establishment is battling an increasingly potent Democratic Party. (In November, the Dems took 3 of 18 seats on the county board, the highest in decades in the Republican stronghold.)
It's been a busy few weeks for Steele. Earlier this month, he drew headlines over a former aide's allegations about questionable spending of funds for a failed U.S. Senate campaign. Then, in a Washington Times interview published Thursday, he said, "We want to convey that the modern-day GOP looks like the conservative party that stands on principles. But we want to apply them to urban-suburban hip-hop settings." It's hard to imagine that the party of Lincoln could somehow include Lil' Wayne and Lil' Kim and the hip-hop strategy was seen by some as patronizing to the blacks and Latinos, among others, who could be open to a moderated Republican Party. (See pictures of the 2008 Republican National Convention.)
Indeed, a key test for Steele will be how he manages to build a coalition of various wings of the Republican Party. His ascension was greeted harshly in more conservative wings of the party, particularly among white conservatives in the rural south who've long held dominance over the party. Former GOP Louisiana congressman and "white separatist" David Duke, for instance, posted an article on his website deriding Steele with the headline, "To Hell with the Republican Party!" On Friday, Steele said, "My job is to win elections. One of the strengths of our party is we have a diversity of opinion on a host of issues. But there's some underlying issues that define us as Republicans."
Steele was in DuPage to deliver the keynote address at the county Republicans' dinner celebrating the 200th anniversary of the birth of Lincoln, America's first Republican President. It was remarkable, considering that Illinois rarely receives serious attention from national Republicans. George H.W. Bush was the last Republican presidential candidate to carry Illinois, in 1988. In recent years, Illinois' Republican Party has been so neutered that, in 2004, it imported Alan Keyes from Maryland to compete against Barack Obama for a U.S. Senate seat. So Steele's visit demonstrates a key aspect of his strategy for reviving the party: planting the party's flag in states beyond the South long ago dismissed by the GOP, while maintaining strongholds like DuPage.
For Republicans, the timing couldn't be better. In recent weeks, of course, Illinois' political landscape has been upended with the ouster of its former governor, Rod Blagojevich, a Democrat, and the evolving imbroglio involving his handpicked replacement for Obama's Senate seat, Roland Burris, who even Illinois' new governor and high-ranking Democratic officials in Washington are strongly urging to resign. Steele himself weighed-in on the matter, saying, "The best solution to avoid taint, and the continuation of the saga, is to clear the deck and allow the people of the state to fully decide." (See pictures from the remarkable world of Rod Blagojevich)
Indeed, local Republicans are salivating at the prospect of fielding candidates for the seat should it open before 2010. Chief among them is Mark Kirk, recently reelected to a Congressional seat representing a nearby Chicago suburb. Kirk, in fact, is widely viewed as the kind of Republican social-moderate that Steele believes can succeed in Democratic-leaning states like Illinois. However, Kirk's moderate stances on issues like abortion and stem-cell research could prove problematic with social conservatives, particularly in the southern part of the state.
On Friday night, local Republicans lavished Steele with praise. "He's smart, he's sophisticated, he has vision," says Dan Cronin, a state legislator and chair of the county's Republican Party. Tall and a bit brawny, Steele took the dais, dressed in a gray suit and a pink tie. "They told me this was Barack Country," he told the overwhelmingly white crowd of roughly 700 (there was a handful of blacks and South Asians), inciting a mixture of applause and boos. He acknowledged that in the last election cycle, "We got our clocks cleaned. We got, as my momma said, 'a good old-fashioned whoopin',' and we deserved it," mainly because, he contended, the party had veered from its 1994 contract with America. (After the dinner, one person noted that the menu could have been better chosen the main dish was pork, not the most welcoming entree for Jews who keep kosher or for South Asian Muslims, of whom there are many in DuPage.)
Steele used the moment to introduce himself to the audience, describing his upbringing by a mother who picked cotton in the South, before moving to Washington, and refusing to take welfare because "she didn't want the government to raise her children." He recalled attending his first Lincoln Day dinner 23 years ago, in Maryland, and how, as a black man, "I didn't get the warmest reception." Friends, he said, had warned: "'They don't like black folks. Republicans, they're mean.' I thought about that, I said, that's not the party of Lincoln. So I decided to get even and get involved."
More substantively, he derided much of the Obama administration's moves so far, saying, "The Democrats have set in motion a plan to consolidate control over health care decisions, welfare programs that we've fought for generations, and now are putting in the hands of government to determine the winners and losers of our marketplace. This is not stimulating." Now, all Steele and his party can deliver is a plausible alternative.