After hours of strategy and deal-making, the Republican National Committee selected its new chairman on Friday. Reince Priebus, who served as state party chair of Wisconsin and general counsel for the RNC during the 2010 election cycle, will take the reins, as former committee chairman Michael Steele steps down.
The RNC's 168 members voted on seven different ballots until Priebus swept the majority with 97 votes. Priebus, who took over just after he was elected, has the daunting task of digging the committee out of a $21.3 million debt and uniting a disparate Republican Party before the 2012 presidential elections. [Read 10 Things You Didn't Know About Michael Steele.]
Before Friday's vote on the chairmanship, which according to RNC rules requires members to vote on multiple ballots until a candidate gets at least 50 percent, or 84 member votes, supporters praised Priebus for his success in Wisconsin in 2010. In addition to replacing three-term Democratic Sen. Russ Feingold with conservative Sen. Ron Johnson, the state changed from blue to red at nearly every level of government, as Wisconsin Republicans also took control of both state houses and the governorship.
"That kind of record that Reince and the party built in Wisconsin should be shared with the national committee," said Steve King, national committeeman for Wisconsin. "We don't need a showhorse, we need a workhorse for a leader, and that's what we have in Reince." [See editorial cartoons on the GOP.]
Compared with his predecessor, Steele, who had a knack for making headlines with public gaffes, Priebus had been characterized by his fellow party members as more low-key, and someone who has proven he can do the "grunt work" of fundraising. Also, as a committee member, he scored points with those who preferred that the chairman come from within the RNC.
"The Republican Party is the thing people are going to contribute to, if our policies are popular, if our platform is what they want to invest in," said Curly Haugland, national committeeman from North Dakota on Friday before the voting began. "Who asks for the money probably matters, and it's important that whoever asks is a serious committed party activist member as opposed to the current chair who brings the attention to himself. A good chairman, in my opinion, most people wouldn't know his name."
Priebus led on all ballots Friday, but did not reach the 84 votes needed for majority until the seventh round. In addition to Steele, who dropped out of the race after the fourth ballot, Priebus beat three other contenders to win. They included Saul Anuzis, former Michigan state party chairman; Ann Wagner, a former ambassador to Luxembourg and former national committeewoman from Missouri; and Maria Cino, the chairman of the Republican National Convention in 2008 and former RNC co-chair.
In between rounds at the Maryland National Harbor convention center where the RNC meeting took place, reporters watched carefully as candidates gathered with their supporters to plan their next votes. The contenders hid from view with their staff in vacant rooms or remained on the members-only floor to strategize with members. All day members campaigned among themselves for their favorite candidates, hoping to change others' votes as the ballots progressed.
Until the results of the sixth ballot gave Priebus a large lead, even committee members themselves admitted they could not predict how the race would end.
But despite the hyped contest, Priebus accepted the chairmanship with a call for unity within the party. "With the election over, now is the time for the committee to unite," he said. "We all recognize that there's a steep hill here ahead of us, and the only way we'll be able to move forward is if we're all together."