Wisconsin GOP Chairman Reince Priebus has been elected the new chairman of the Republican National Committee, offering a fresh face and the promise of a new management style for the party as it gears up for the 2012 presidential election cycle.
Mr. Priebus defeated four other candidates, including incumbent Chairman Michael Steele, the former Maryland lieutenant governor who was denied a bid for a second two-year term. The voting Friday afternoon was the climax of the three-day annual winter meeting of the 168-member RNC held just south of Washington, D.C., in Maryland’s Prince George’s County.
Mr. Priebus, whose candidacy was widely seen as having the support of influential Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, a former RNC chairman, won on the seventh ballot, after a spirited campaign in which Mr. Steele’s rivals argued the RNC had lost financial clout and credibility during his tenure. The youngest chairman ever of the Wisconsin GOP, the 37-year-old Kenosha, Wisc., native served for a time as RNC general counsel under Mr. Steele before resigning to challenge his former boss.
“With the election over, now it is the time for the committee to unite,” Mr. Priebus told RNC members minutes after the final ballot, thanking Mr. Steele for “his service over the past two years.”
Calling for a new spirit of unity among Republicans, he pledged to develop a “solid business plan” for the RNC, increase communications with state parties and restructure the party’s troubled finances.
In declaring for the top RNC post last month, Mr. Priebus promised “less drama, more hard work, more results and more focus on winning.”
Others in the race included: Maria Cino, a former Bush administration official who ran the party’s 2008 convention; former Michigan party chairman Saul Anuzis; and Ann Wagner, former ambassador to Luxembourg and a former head of the Missouri Republican Party. Mr. Steele endorsed Mrs. Cino, a favorite of new GOP House Speaker John Boehner, after pulling out of the contest before the fifth round of voting, but Mr. Priebus continued to build his lead and was the top vote-getter in every round before achieving a majority. Mrs. Wagner released her supporters just before the seventh and decisive round.
Mr. Steele, the first black to head the GOP, obtained 44 votes in the first round, second by just a vote to Mr. Priebus, but his pitch that Republicans had scored major gains at the ballot box during his two-year tenure was not enough to build on his early support.
Despite those recent Republican electoral gains, Mr. Steele proved one of the most polarizing figures ever to head the party.
Top GOP officials had feared the White House could slip through their fingers next year unless a new RNC emerged from the voting, and Mr. Steele resisted intense pressure not to seek re-election.
Mr. Steele has spent much of his time since his surprise victory in January 2009 defending himself against accusations of cronyism and self-dealing while in office, with former RNC national chairmen, former finance chairmen and current RNC members among his most prominent critics.
But Mr. Steele staunchly defended his tenure, pointing Friday to the party’s recent gains at the ballot box even as he was dropping out of the race..
“Despite the difficulties, we won,” he said, to cheers from the assembled RNC members. “Barack Obama’s agenda is not good for America. We fired Pelosi. Let’s take the Senate. Let’s take the White House. Let’s heal America,” he said. “Thank you for the opportunity to serve.
“And now I exit, stage right.”