In a roller coaster of an election, Wisconsin GOP Chairman Reince Priebus seized the chairmanship of the Republican National Committee on Friday, replacing the controversial incumbent party chairman, Michael Steele, and defeating four other high-profile contenders.
Priebus steadily gained support over seven rounds of balloting, finally clinching the chairmanship with 97 votes -- 54 more than second-place finisher Saul Anuzis. Long-time Republican operative Maria Cino finished in third place with 28 votes.
"I just want to thank God, I want to thank Jesus for this moment," Priebus said shortly after his election. "I am so blessed."
"We have to get on track, and together we can defeat Barack Obama in 2012 -- together unified as a committee," he said. "I want you to know that I am here to earn the trust and support of each and every one of you, and I'm going to start working right now as your chairman."
Priebus had been a close ally of Steele until he announced his candidacy in December and resigned as the party's general counsel.
Steele ended his tumultuous two-year chairmanship after the fourth round of balloting, and threw his support behind Cino.
"Two years, we've had a good time," Steele told members of the committee. "We've done a lot of good things." But he conceded, "The party wants to do something a little bit different and hopefully a little bit better."
"I will step aside because I think the party is ready for something different, and at this time I release my supporters," he said, urging them to vote for Cino.
It did not end up being the boost for Cino that her supporters had hoped it would be. During the race, Cino won the endorsements of House Speaker John Boehner and former Vice President Dick Cheney. A fifth candidate, former Missouri GOP Chair Ann Wagner, dropped out of the race before the final round of voting.
In his victory speech, Priebus referred to a "steep hill" ahead of the RNC. "Together we must lead the way to a better committee and a better America."
Priebus pledged to restore the faith of Republican donors and said he would work effectively with the new GOP leaders in Congress.
"I understand the challenges that lie ahead of us go well past raising funds," Priebus said.
Speaking to reporters after the vote, Priebus said his first priority as chairman would be finding a way to pay down the RNC's $20 million debt. He said he had already spoken with many of the GOP's top contributors.
"They're ready to go to work," he said, "they want to roll up their sleeves, rebuild the finances of this party and move on to 2012 for a great victory."
During the campaign, Priebus pointed to his track record of "raising money, selecting strong, conservative candidates and staying on message" as GOP chairman in Wisconsin. He also touted his role in getting Republicans elected to high office in Wisconsin, including GOP Gov. Scott Walker, Republican Sen. Ron Johnson and Rep. Sean Duffy.
Members of the RNC congratulated Priebus on his victory, but agreed difficult challenges lie ahead.