Wisconsin Republican Party Chairman Reince Priebus was elected chair of the Republican National Committee on Friday, defeating four other candidates — including incumbent Michael S. Steele — in seven rounds of voting.
Priebus never trailed in the voting, slowly building on his tally until he surpassed a majority of the 168 voting members.
Steele, the gaffe-prone former lieutenant governor of Maryland who was elected as chairman in January 2009, dropped out of contention after the fourth round of balloting.
"I think the party is ready for something different," an emotional Steele said as he addressed party stalwarts earlier at the Gaylord Hotel in National Harbor. "At this time, I will step aside for others to lead. But in so doing I hope you all appreciate the legacy we leave."
State party chairman since 2007, Priebus helped Wisconsin Republicans win back the governor's office after eight years, unseat three-term Democratic Sen. Russ Feingold and pick up two congressional seats in 2010 — successes the party hopes he can replicate on a national scale.
"A state that was totally black and blue is now totally red," Wisconsin GOP committeeman Steve King said in a nominating speech.
Priebus' immediate task will be to shore up the finances of a party that, despite success at the ballot box, is deeply in debt heading into the 2012 presidential election cycle.
"I'm going to start working right now," Priebus said after securing victory.
Priebus had actually helped Steele win two years ago, and worked closely with him during his term.
Steele failed to attract much support after his surprise decision last month to seek another term. A leading reason was enunciated as the meeting convened earlier, when the RNC's treasurer announced that the party remains more than $20 million in debt.
When he won the chairmanship, Steele represented a change that even party insiders wanted after eight years of President George W. Bush. Running as an outsider, he was elected days after President Barack Obama took office. Supporters saw Steele as a charismatic speaker who could give the party a new, more inclusive image.
But perceptions of Steele as an articulate messenger proved mistaken, as he stumbled into a series of verbal gaffes that never really ended.
Last summer, his description of the conflict in Afghanistan as "a war of Obama's choosing" horrified Republicans who backed the effort and remembered its origins under Bush. He suggested last winter that Republicans would not succeed in taking over the House, a view that left many in the GOP fuming.
Management problems at party headquarters in Washington also drew increasing, and unwanted, attention. Steele's chief of staff and another aide were dismissed after nearly $2,000 in RNC money was spent at a sex-themed West Hollywood nightclub. A falloff in contributions from big donors gave critics more fuel.
Other candidates included Ann Wagner, a former national committee official and ambassador to Luxembourg under Bush; Maria Cino, a longtime Republican strategist; and Michigan committeeman Saul Anuzis.
Cino had the support of new House Speaker John A. Boehner of Ohio, who held an event with RNC members to boost her bid Wednesday night.
As the new chairman, Priebus will be tasked with helping the party get back on secure financial ground and focusing its efforts on supporting the party's nominee in 2012, presumably against Obama.