MADISON, Wis. — It's hard to be much more Republican than Reince Priebus.
A member of the College Republicans at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, he rose through the state party ranks through a combination of smarts and sheer willpower. And his first date with his future wife was a Lincoln Day dinner.
The party devotion paid off Friday when the national GOP picked the tenacious 38-year-old Kenosha native as its chairman.
"I'm not surprised to be sitting here in 2011 with him just getting elected as chairman," said Brian Schimming, the state GOP's first vice-chairman who has known Priebus for nearly 20 years. "When Reince decides to do something, he's all in. And he was all in on this."
Born and raised in Kenosha, Priebus graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater in 1994 and worked as a legislative clerk for the state Assembly Education Committee.
He earned a law degree from the University of Miami, graduating with honors in 1998. He joined the firm Michael, Best & Friedrich in Milwaukee, where he specializes in corporate litigation. The Milwaukee Business Journal in 2008 named him one of Milwaukee's 40 Under 40, an honor the publication bestows on up-and-coming community leaders.
Priebus married his high school sweetheart, Sally, in 1999, according to a Miami alumni update. They still live in Kenosha with their son and daughter.
Priebus served as chair of the Kenosha County GOP and ran for state Senate in 2004, eventually losing to incumbent Democrat Bob Wirch.
In 2007 he was elected state GOP chairman while still in his early 30s.
Most of his tenure was spent trying to rebuild the party's morale after Republicans lost control of the state Senate in 2006 and the Assembly in 2008, giving state government over to Democrats after Gov. Jim Doyle won re-election.
Other Republicans say Priebus kept the party from fracturing, traveling statewide to recruit candidates, raise money and sometimes just be a cheerleader.
"Four years ago, there wasn't a lot of hope around for Republicans," Schimming said. "Part of that leadership (was) going out, county to county, community to community, encouraging the troops, raising money and giving people hope. He is not a stranger to 18-hour days."
Priebus continued to work the state hard ahead of the 2010 election, visiting nearly every GOP campaign headquarters in Wisconsin, said state GOP Executive Director Mark Jefferson.
"He could be found in any one of those offices, giving pep talks to volunteers, telling people to keep their chin up and keep pushing toward the goal," Jefferson said.
It paid off. Republicans won the governor's office in November, along with majorities in both the state Assembly and Senate.
U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson credited Priebus with helping him knock off Sen. Russ Feingold, Wisconsin's heavyweight Democratic incumbent who'd been seen as a strong favorite early in the campaign season.
"With no previous political experience, I had to have a trusted confidant to rely upon and a strong state party organization that enabled my campaign to reach deeply into the grass roots," Johnson wrote in a Thursday letter endorsing Priebus for the RNC position. "Reince provided both."
Darrin Schmitz, a consultant to Priebus' RNC campaign, said Priebus "is very well known for being able to pull people together from different factions and coalitions and make sure they're rowing in the same direction."
Even state Democratic Party Chairman Mike Tate said he respected Priebus, high praise in an era of bitter political rhetoric.
"I've spent a lot of time with him in green rooms and before debates," Tate said. "I really like Reince. We have a very cordial relationship."
The newest challenges facing Priebus are formidable. The national party is $22 million in debt, tea party followers are trying to pull the GOP further to the right and he must figure out how to beat President Barack Obama in 2012.
Schimming said Priebus can do it.
"He's as driven as he is sharp," Schimming said. "You get people who . . . drive the effort just by the force of their will. And that's Reince."
Associated Press writer Dinesh Ramde contributed to this report from Milwaukee.