Reince Priebus is the new chairman of the Republican National Committee.
Priebus won with 97 votes in the seventh round of voting. Priebus, the chairman of the Wisconsin Republican Party, was the leader from the first ballot, and was the only candidate to not lose any supporters as voting progressed Friday afternoon.
Speaking to committee members after his election, Preibus said, "Now is the time to unite."
He thanked Steele for his service but pledged that under his leadership the RNC will "begin to restore the faith of our donors" and "work hard to develop a new line of communication with state parties," including Republican leaders in Congress.
"I am here to earn the trust and support of each and every one of you," Priebus said. "I'm going to start working right now as your chairman."
"We can defeat Barack Obama in 2012, together unified as a committee," said Preibus, who told members he can't wait to "rebuild this party and move on to conservative candidates."
He also addressed the committee's financial situation, which was a big concern for members.
"With this new focused leadership the RNC will move forward by restructuring our financial operation, reviewing our current plans of action and hiring top notch staff," he said.
Priebus said he recognzied there were "steep hills" ahead but added: "Let's come together to elected Republicans."
During the campaign, Priebus often touted his three-year record as chairman of the Wisconsin GOP. Under his leadership, the party recaptured the governor's office, defeated Sen. Russ Feingold (D) and captured the House seat formerly held by long-serving Rep. David Obey (D).
He also made a point of promising to reach out to the disparate activist groups that popped up as the influence of the RNC waned. “All of these groups will have a seat at the table when I’m chairman of the Republican National Committee,” he said at the only candidates debate Jan. 3. “We’re not in competition with the [Tea Party] movement, we’re part of it. We need unity, we need to be working together.”
Priebus inherits the chairmanship at a perilous time for the party. The RNC starts the 2012 cycle more than $20 million in debt, which has worried members, particularly given President Obama's fundraising prowess. Some observers have predicted the RNC will need to raise close to $400 million in the next two years if it hopes to retake control of the Senate and defeat Obama. Some members and GOP consultants are worried the RNC won't be recapture the power it once had.
The flourishing Tea Party movement has taken volunteers and donors away from the party, and it will take a concerted effort to win them back.
Michigan committee member Ronald Weiser said Priebus won with a "nice majority" but he needs to work quickly to restore confidence in the RNC and put a fundraising infrastructure in place.
"Getting that infrastructure in place, I think, is the most important thing," said Weiser, a former ambassador.
Priebus's victory ended a long day of voting. The five candidates hung on throughout the early balloting and Steele was the first to drop out after the fourth round of votes.
Former Missouri Republican Party Chairwoman Ann Wagner dropped out after the sixth round of voting.
"I release my supporters because I respect this process," she said. She did not endorse anyone but said her supporters should "do what they feel they should do in their hearts."
Steele endorsed former George W. Bush administration official Maria Cino. She gained 11 votes in the fifth round of voting but saw her support fall significantly in the sixth round. She ended up coming in last.
Steele came into the race having to defend his two-year tenure to angry party members. He sank into third place in the fourth rounding of voting, and he was never higher than second to Priebus.
"At this time I will step aside for others to lead," Steele told members Friday afternoon. "I think the party is ready for something different."
Steele also asked members to remember his tenure in a positive light. "Despite the difficulties, we won," he said to a standing ovation.
"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 to lead, and now I exit stage-right." Members stood again to deliver an ovation as he exited.
Here are the seventh-round results:
• Wisconsin Republican Party Chairman Reince Priebus 97
• Former Michigan Republican Party Chairman Saul Anuzis 43
• Former Bush administration official Maria Cino 28
A candidate needed 85 votes to win.
In the six round of voting, Priebus was five votes away with 80 votes; Anuzis was in second with 37; Cino had 34; and Wagner received 17.
In the fifth round of voting, Priebus was in the lead with 67 votes, Cino was second with 40, Anuzis followed with 32 and Wagner received 28 votes. There was one write-in, which was not eligible.
In the fourth round of voting, Priebus was first with 58; Cino moved into second with 29; Steele dropped to third with 28; Wagner also received 38 and Anuzis remained in last with 24.
In the third round of voting, Priebus was first with 54; Steele was next with 33; Wagner moved into third place with 32 votes; Cino received 28; and Anuzis got 21.
In the second round of voting, Priebus came in first with 52 votes; Steele was next with 37; Cino followed with 30; Wagner received 27; and Anuzis had 22.
Steele put up a strong showing in the first round. He took 44 votes, only one fewer than Priebus. Cino finished in third place, with 32 votes, while Anuzis received 24 and Wagner got 23.
Some committee members expressed surprise at the strength of Cino's showing in the first round. One GOP consultant suggested her support was a result of Speaker John Boehner's (Ohio) strong backing. Boehner held a reception for members this week where he urged them to support her candidacy. Some members regard Cino as a potential bridge builder between the RNC and Capitol Hill, where tension has existed under Steele's leadership.
But the Speaker released a statement congratulating Priebus almost immediately after voting ended.
"Reince can count on my support as we work to ensure that Republican candidates have the resources and the ground game needed to win the battle of ideas with President Obama and his Democratic allies," Boehner said.
Priebus entered the Friday balloting as the front-runner, having collected some 40 public endorsements. In addition to the backing of committee members, he has the support of high-profile Wisconsin Republicans including Rep. Paul Ryan, the House Budget Committee chairman.
"Feeling good — in God's hands … ," Priebus tweeted Friday before the candidate nominations were formally made.
Anuzis, early on Friday, predicted he would need a few rounds of voting to make a strong showing. He was in last place in the early voting but finished in second place.
“Our campaigns — mine, Wagner’s and Cino’s — really don’t start until the third, fourth, fifth ballot at best,” Anuzis told The Ballot Box.
“First the incumbent makes his run. He either gets reelected or not,” he said. “Reince Priebus is now in the strongest position to be the challenger. He’ll make his run; if he gets 85, he wins — if he doesn’t it opens up for everybody else to play.” He continued, “Whenever you have a multiple-ballot, multiple-candidate election, it's traditionally a consensus-building election.”
Anuzis denied he was already cutting deals with Wagner and Cino: “We’re not making any deals with anybody. But I’m talking to everybody.
“We’re ready to get this thing going,” Anuzis said.
— This story was last updated at 5:42 p.m.