OXON HILL, Md. — The national Republican Party, coming off huge election victories but facing a $22 million debt and an internal war over identity, ousted chairman Michael Steele Friday and chose Wisconsin party chief Reince Priebus to lead in the run-up to the 2012 presidential race.
The embattled Steele dropped his re-election bid halfway through an afternoon of balloting when it became clear he could not win another two-year term after a first marked by verbal missteps and financial woes.
"We have to get on track. And together we can defeat Barack Obama in 2012," Priebus, the chairman of the Wisconsin GOP, said in a brief victory speech, pleading for unity within the fractured 168-member Republican National Committee. "We all recognize that there's a steep hill here ahead of us, and the only way that we'll be able to move forward is if we're all together."
The new chairman's name is pronounced Ryns Pree'-bus.
A former top lieutenant to Steele, Priebus promised to hire top-notch staff, restructure the organization and put it on solid financial footing so the next GOP presidential nominee will be prepared to take on Obama. Later, he rejected suggestions the national party organization's power might have waned, given the proliferation of outside groups that have assumed campaign functions the party historically has performed.
"It's very relevant," he said.
For the next two years, Priebus will try to prove that.
Most urgently, the new chairman must retire an RNC debt of about $22 million owed to vendors and banks, as well as lure back demoralized donors who have been so frustrated with Steele's management that they sent their dollars elsewhere or didn't open their wallets at all last year. The party had only about $1 million cash on hand at year's end.
He'll also serve as the party top spokesman promoting its agenda, countering Democrats, raising money to help Republicans and improving a get-out-the-vote effort that critics say languished under Steele.
Additionally, Priebus will have to figure out how to navigate a GOP civil war in which conservatives and tea party disciples are trying to pull the Republican Party further to the right, to the chagrin of moderates and some longtime establishment leaders.
The favorite heading into Friday's balloting, Priebus led the field through seven rounds of voting. Steele quit after the fourth round. Ann Wagner, a former Missouri state GOP chair, abandoned her bid a few rounds later. Maria Cino, a New York native and a veteran party operative who served in President George W. Bush's administration, and Saul Anuzis, a former chairman of the Michigan Republican Party, stayed on the ballot until the end.
"Despite the noise, despite the difficulties, we won" in November, Steele said, noting huge gains that included the GOP taking control of the House. "We must go forward, and we must win. We fired (Nancy) Pelosi. Let's take the Senate. Let's take the White House."
It was a message Priebus echoed.
Virtually unknown nationally, the Wisconsin GOP chairman has a high profile in his home state.
He's an attorney with the law firm Michael Best & Friedrich, where he is a partner specializing in corporate litigation, according to the firm's website. State and federal campaign finance records show the Wisconsin Republican Party has paid the firm at least $89,572 in legal fees during Priebus' tenure as state GOP chairman.
Priebus' political statements have sometimes contrasted with the law firm's actions.
He has criticized Obama's multibillion-dollar economic stimulus package as a costly failure; Michael Best & Friedrich has helped clients try to win stimulus funds. Firm spokesman David Krutz said Friday that Priebus has had no role on the stimulus team.
A telegenic though gaffe-prone party leader, Steele had argued that he should be re-elected because of the GOP's record of coast-to-coast victories. However, Republican operatives had formed a network of outside groups that adopted traditional national party functions out of a concern about the RNC's ability under Steele to raise money and deploy resources to key races.
The first black chairman of the Republican Party, Steele was elected to a two-year term in January 2008 just as Obama — the country's first black president — was taking office.
Since then, Steele, the former lieutenant governor of Maryland, has spent much of his tenure fending off criticism. He faced frequent complaints about questionable spending, anemic fundraising, staff shake-ups and cringe-inducing comments.
Longtime establishment Republicans and GOP elders in Washington argued that he damaged the party's image and its long-term fiscal health.
Steele angered them by predicting the GOP wouldn't win House control last fall; Republicans did win. He also drew their ire when he criticized fellow Republicans in a book that GOP leaders didn't know he was writing until it was published.
He lashed out at critics, telling them to "get a life." Steele also drew fire for collecting payments for his speeches.
Demands for him to resign came last year after the disclosure that RNC money was spent on a $2,000 tab at a sex-themed California night club, and when he said that the 9-year-old conflict in Afghanistan was a mistaken "war of Obama's choosing." It began under Bush.
Associated Press Writer Sharon Theimer contributed to this report.