Reince Priebus Chosen by Republicans to Unite Party as Steele Departs

Posted on January 14th, 2011

Reince Priebus, the head of Wisconsin Republicans but little known outside of internal GOP circles, was elected Friday as the new chairman of the Republican National Committee, succeeding the controversial Michael Steele who dropped out of the race as his support faded.

Priebus pleaded for unity after a hard-fought campaign in which he challenged Steele, the man he once served at the RNC. “We must come together for our common interests,” he said after finally going over the top in the election. “It isn’t going to be easy or glamorous,” he said of the internal party work, but “we must lead the way.”

Worried about debt and divided over their future political leadership, Republican National Committee members labored through seven ballots in the election to pick a chairman who can lead the party into the critical 2012 election cycle. Steele, conceding after the fourth ballot, threw his support to Maria Cino, a former Bush administration official. But it was Priebus who surged, reaching 97 votes on the last round of voting — 12 above the majority he needed from the 168 committee members eligible to cast ballots.

The incumbent, Steele, was in trouble in his bid for another two years at the helm from the outset of balloting. His gracious concession Friday was greeted with warm, appreciative applause. He said he would “step aside because I believe the party is ready for something different.” And now, he said, “I exit stage right.”

Steele had presided over electoral victories, including the GOP takeover of the U.S. House in the midterms, but he has also alarmed some Republicans with his management style, a series of verbal gaffes and an RNC debt said by the Washington Post to stand at $20 million.

In addition to Priebus and Cino, the chairmanship was sought by former Michigan Republican Chairman Saul Anuzis, who finished second on the last ballot, and Ann Wagner, the former ambassador to Luxembourg. Cino had the backing of House Speaker John Boehner, while Priebus was supported by former Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour.

Republican National Committee Chairman Michael S. Steele Steele once counted Priebus as an ally on the RNC, the party’s organizing and fund-raising arm. The 38-year-old lawyer resigned as the national party’s general counsel early last month and then jumped into the race against his old boss. During his campaign, Priebus promised “less drama, more hard work” — which sounded like a reference to Steele’s stormy tenure. On Friday, he said he would move quickly to “restructure” the RNC’s financial operation.

Steele, who served as Maryland’s lieutenant governor for four years ending in 2007, didn’t go quietly. “I’m a fighter and I am a little bit obstinate, but I am because I believed in the fight,” he told the committee members. He had earlier said he would stay in the contest until the final ballot was counted at the meeting in a conference center in suburban Prince Georges County, just south of Washington.

The Post reported Friday that the RNC under Steele has seen a big drop-off in contributions from major donors — more than 600 people who gave $10,000 or more during the last two election cycles chose not to write checks during the midterm campaign.

The RNC chairman is more than a front man for the national party. He or she also serves as a fundraiser, troubleshooter and candidate recruiter — critical roles heading into a campaign that will nominate a presidential candidate, seek to defend a new majority in the U.S. House and try to capture control of the Senate.

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