Reince Priebus, the newly elected chairman of the Republican National Committee, inherits a party organization plagued by debt and internal squabbles as it prepares for the 2012 effort to defeat an incumbent president.
Priebus, 38, won the post in part by touting his record as head of the party in Wisconsin, where significant gains were made in November.
After his selection yesterday at a RNC meeting near Washington, he pledged to confront the challenges and run the party in a way that will win back the trust of financial donors needed to challenge President Barack Obama’s re-election bid.
“We’re going to start by putting a solid business plan in place to operate effectively and efficiently to begin to restore the faith of our donors,” he said. “We must know how to spend these funds effectively.”
Priebus defeated the incumbent chairman, Michael Steele, who had become caught up in controversies over how the party was run during his two years at the helm, and three other candidates.
Even as Republicans won control of the U.S. House by picking up 63 seats in November’s midterm elections, Steele came under attack over his management of the organization’s money and message, with members blaming him for the $20 million in debt that undercut efforts to promote the party’s candidates.
“You all are the board of directors,” Priebus told the 168 RNC members during his victory speech. “And while I may be the CEO, we must all remember that each of us, every one of us, is still an employee to Republican voters.”
Republicans in Wisconsin won the governorship in November, as well as a U.S. Senate seat held by Democrat Russ Feingold. They also picked up two House seats in the state’s eight-member delegation and gained control of both chambers of the state legislature.
Seven Ballots Needed
Following seven rounds of balloting at the Gaylord National Hotel & Convention Center in Oxon Hill, Maryland, Priebus won 97 votes, with 85 needed. Saul Anuzis, a former state chairman in Michigan, had 43 votes, followed by Maria Cino, a veteran Republican operative supported by House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio, with 28. Steele and Ann Wagner, a former ambassador to Luxembourg, ended their candidacies after earlier tallies.
“Let’s come together and let’s get ready to elect Republicans,” Priebus, a former RNC general counsel, told the members, who are selected by state-level party activists.
Backers of Priebus included Henry Barbour, a nephew of Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour, a former RNC chairman.
Priebus was among the first members of the RNC to endorse Steele’s 2009 bid for the chairmanship, and he managed Steele’s campaign. After Steele won, becoming the committee’s first black chairman, he asked Priebus to lead his transition.
Priebus climbed the party’s ranks in Wisconsin, beginning as a local activist and becoming state chairman in 2007.
A 1998 graduate of the University of Miami School of Law, Priebus also attended the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, according to a biography on the website of his Milwaukee law firm.
Steele’s totals declined with each round of the voting and he announced his withdrawal after the fourth round. He urged his supporters to back Cino.
“It is very clear the party wants to do something a little different, and hopefully a little bit better,” he said.
During his tenure, Steele often was in the spotlight for verbal gaffes and for statements that were controversial within the party. He faced more criticism after financial reports showed that in February 2010, the party paid almost $2,000 for meals at a bondage-themed nightclub in West Hollywood, California, that featured topless dancers.
In July, Senator John McCain of Arizona, the party’s 2008 presidential nominee, criticized as “wildly inaccurate” a comment by Steele that the conflict in Afghanistan, which began after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, “was a war of Obama’s choosing.”
And shortly after he was elected in January 2009, Steele said he wanted to apply Republican principles to “urban-suburban hip-hop settings.” The comment became fodder for comedians and critics because the party didn’t have a single black member in the House or the Senate at the time.
Chosen as party chairman 10 days after the inauguration of the country’s first black president, Steele, 52, won his post by stressing the importance of reaching out to minorities. He embodied the party’s hopes for improving its ability to compete with Democrats for support from minority voters.
“We have been through some big storms, some small storms,” Steele said in his withdrawal speech. “But this storm you cannot allow to continue. We must heal ourselves, we must go forward together and we must win.”
He called on the party to rally together to claim the U.S. Senate and the White House in 2012.
“I thank you for the opportunity to serve and to lead,” Steele said. “And now, I exit stage right.”