Former Maryland Lt. Gov. Michael Steele has been appointed chairman of GOPAC, a group that raises money, recruits and trains Republican candidates nationwide, the organization announced Thursday.

Steele lost last fall's U.S. Senate race in Maryland to Democrat Ben Cardin, then a congressman from Baltimore.

Steele's appointment is effective Feb. 1, GOPAC said in a statement.

He succeeds former U.S. Rep. J.C. Watts, R-Okla., who stepped down this week after four years as chairman.

Steele, 48, became the first black in Maryland elected to statewide office in 2002 as Republican Gov. Robert Ehrlich's running mate.

After losing the 2006 Senate race, he expressed interest in the chairmanship of the Republican National Committee before the position went to Florida Sen. Mel Martinez.

Founded in 1978 by Delaware Gov. Pete Du Pont, GOPAC raised nearly $9 million during the last election cycle, provided direct campaign support to candidates in 17 states and trained thousands of campaign workers, the organization said.

Steele said he intends to maintain GOPAC's focus on grass-roots organizing.

"I intend to take GOPAC back to the message and mission that made it great," he said in the statement. "We will concentrate on GOPAC's efforts on recruiting, training, and equipping candidates across the country to establish and maintain a Republican majority."

Watts, who owns a political consulting firm in Washington, was instrumental in selecting Steele as his successor, the organization said.