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."
Reince Priebus New RNC Chair; Michael Steele Out
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.
"Despite the hard-fought battle for chair, RNC members are united behind Priebus," Iowa Republican Party Chairman Matt Strawn told ABC News. "The stark reality of rebuilding the RNC's finances and preparing to combat the prospects of a billion-dollar Obama re-election effort should keep all members focused on the task at hand, which is electing a Republican president in 2012."
Friday's election took more than five hours and only three candidates remained by the last round of voting. Aside from Priebus, no other candidate secured more than 50 votes all day, and Anuzis, Wagner, Cino and Steele each struggled in vain to find a path to victory.
The candidates and their supporters lobbied other members throughout the day, but Priebus never lost the momentum he had going into the vote.
Reince Priebus New RNC Chair; Michael Steele Out
"It obviously took a little longer than we would have wanted," said one of Priebus' chief supporters, Mississippi committeeman Henry Barbour. "The good news for Reince was every round he went up a little bit and kept it steady, and at some point momentum kicked it."
Barbour, the nephew of Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, was an early promoter of Priebus' candidacy within the committee.
Steele's support declined steadily through four rounds of balloting. He never improved on his first-round showing of 44 votes, and by the fourth vote, his supporters had dwindled to just 28.
He based his campaign on the GOP's impressive midterm election victories and as recently as this week trumpeted the RNC's role in those successes in a memo he circulated among the members.
"The efforts of our party -- a party once tagged as an endangered species -- speaks for itself," Steele told his members on Friday before voting began. "I hope all of you, regardless of the outcome of this day, appreciate what you've done to establish firmly the Republican renaissance that we all talked about two years ago."
He also signaled that as chairman he would be open to bridging the gap between establishment Republicans and Tea Party groups.
"I'm part of the grassroots movement," Priebus declared. "Our party is part of the conservative movement in this country, we're not in competition with it."
The new chairman has vowed to be a nuts-and-bolts leader -- a tacit rejection of Steele's up-front, provocative style that earned him a reputation as a gaffe-prone chairman.
Despite those foibles and what had become a growing sentiment among many of the RNC's 168 members that change was needed at the top, Steele received two standing ovations as he bowed out of the race on Friday.
"And now I exit stage right," he said.