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Posted at 5:18 PM ET, 01/14/2011

Reince Priebus wins RNC Chairmanship

By Chris Cillizza

Wisconsin Republican party chairman Reince Priebus won a protracted fight for the chairmanship of the Republican National Committee today, replacing his one-time ally Michael Steele at the helm of the committee.

Priebus led on every ballot but picked up momentum once Steele exited the contest after the fourth round of voting. (Steele endorsed former RNC official Maria Cino but it was Priebus who harvested most of the incumbent's support.)

Priebus won the chairmanship -- a simply majority of the 168 RNC committeemen and women -- on the seventh ballot.

In addition to Steele and Cino, Priebus beat out former Michigan Republican party chairman Saul Anuzis and former ambassador Ann Wagner for the top job.

Throughout the race, Priebus was a reluctant warrior -- waiting on the sidelines for weeks for Steele to step aside and, when that didn't happen, saying little about his one-time ally during the final weeks of the process.

But, in the way that he cast his candidacy, Priebus made clear he was the anti-Steele. He touted himself as a low-key doer, and made sure the 168 voting members of the committee knew about the successes he had enjoyed as chairman of the Wisconsin GOP, which won a governor's race, a U.S. Senate seat and two House seats last November.

Priebus' candidacy did not seem hamstrung by his one-time close association to Steele. (He served as Steele's campaign manager in the 2009 RNC contest.) Steele pointedly refused to endorse Priebus when he decided to exit the race, a sign that the ill feelings still lingered between the two men.

"I will step aside because I think the party is ready for something different," said Steele in stepping aside. He remained defiant about the gains the GOP had made under his guidance, however, noting: "Despite the noise, despite the difficulties, we won."

Priebus also enjoyed widespread geographic support across the committee -- none more important than from Henry Barbour, a Mississippi committeeman and the nephew of Governor and potential 2012 presidential candidate Haley Barbour (R-Miss.).

The association with a would-be presidential candidate was used by Priebus' opponents but ultimately did little to alter the final outcome.

Priebus' challenge as chairman is daunting.

The most difficult task is beginning to not only erase a $20 million debt the RNC carried in the wake of the 2010 election but also build back relationships with major GOP donors that had eroded badly during Steele's time in office.

Every candidate in the race -- with the exception of Steele -- insisted that while the party had scored across-the-board gains in the 2010 election, the RNC was not in the sort of shape it needed to be to help defeat President Obama in 2012.

He also must find ways to unite the fractious divide between the establishment and tea party wings of the GOP. One of his main selling points to the committee, in fact, was his ability to successfully do just that in Wisconsin -- rallying the party behind Gov. Scott Walker and Sen. Ron Johnson among others.

By Chris Cillizza  | January 14, 2011; 5:18 PM ET
Categories:  Republican Party  
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Next: Afternoon Fix: Reince Priebus elected Republican National Committee chairman; Chris Christie to headline NRCC fundraising dinner

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