ABC News' Michael Falcone reports:
In addition to Priebus, the candidates who were vying for the post included incumbent RNC Chairman Michael Steele, former Missouri Republican Party chair Ann Wagner, former Michigan GOP Chairman Saul Anuzis, and former Bush administration official Maria Cino.
Many of the 168 members who voted today said they were eager to elect an alternative to Steele, but as early as this morning the chairman and his supporters were holding out hope for an upset victory. That was not to be. Preibus had the most public endorsements heading into the election and support steadily grew over seven rounds of balloting.
Here are the latest developments:
5:20 PM | Priebus wins it. In a roller coaster of an election, Wisconsin GOP Chairman Reince Priebus seized the chairmanship of the Republican National Committee on Friday, defeating the incumbent party chairman and fourth other high-profile contenders.
Priebus steadily grew his 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. “I am so blessed”
“We have to get on track, and together we can defeat Barack Obama in 2012 — together unified as a committee.”
“I want you to know that I am here to earn the trust and support of each and every one of you,” he said. “And I’m going to start working right now as your chairman.”
Priebus referred to a “steep hill” ahead of us. “Together we must lead the way to a better committee and a better America.”
He pledged to restore the faith of RNC donors and said he would work effectively with new the GOP leaders in Congress.
“I understand the challenges that lie ahead of us go well past raising funds,” Priebus said.
"I will earn your trust every day," he promised committee members.
5:00 PM |Seventh round underway. The seventh — and what could be the last — round of voting is now underway. It's been more than five hours since the election began this afternoon and Priebus appears to have the best shot at winning.
4:50 PM | Ann Wagner drops out. "I have a passion for service, and I will continue serving," candidate Ann Wagner told members of the RNC as she declared she was dropping out of the race before the seventh ballot.
Wagner did not endorse a candidate.
4:50 PM | Priebus nearly seals the deal. Wisconsin's Reince Priebus came just 5 votes shy of the majority needed to win the chairmanship in the sixth round of voting. Here are the results:
4:15 PM | Cino gets a boost, Priebus holds onto lead. Here are the results in the fifth round of balloting — the first vote taken after Michael Steele exited the race.
As was the case in the 4th round, there was one write in vote that was declared ineligible.
The results mean that Priebus is only 18 votes shy of the majority needed to win the chairmanship. It also means that Steele's endorsement likely failed to pull all of his voters to Maria Cino's side.
Still, Cino gained the most of any candidate, adding 11 votes to her fourth round total. Meanwhile, in between votes Anuzis and Wagner were seen meeting together in private.
3:55 PM | Steele drops out, endorses Cino. RNC Chairman Michael Steele ended a tumultuous two-year chairmanship of the committee on Friday afternoon and threw his support behind long-time Republican operative Maria Cino.
"Two years, we’ve had a good time," Steele told members of the committee. "We’ve done a lot of good things."
He added, "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 Maria Cino. It could be a huge boost for her campaign, but it’s unclear how many of Steele’s supporters Cino will be able to get. If all of Steele's supporters flipped to her side and she maintained her vote count from the last round, she would end up with 57 votes.
There is speculation that if Cino can post a strong showing in the fifth round of balloting she will also try to pick off some of Saul Anuzis voters. Some of those who had been whipping votes for Steele are now actively involved in helping Cino’s effort.
Steele received two standing ovations during his brief remarks. "And now I exit stage right," he said.
3:40 PM | Priebus edges up, Wagner falls. Here are the fourth round results.
There was also one write-in candidate. The vote was declared ineligible.
3:30 PM | Fourth round of balloting in progress. No candidates have dropped out. The time each round of voting is taking has sped up slightly after members of the committee voted to shorten the time between votes to 10 rather than 20 minutes.
3:10 PM | Priebus maintains, lead, Anuzis slipping. Reince Priebus added two votes to bring his total to 54, while Anuzis's bid appears to be losing steam — he dropped one supporter. Wagner, on the other hand, added five to her total, showing some signs of momentum, while the other woman in the race – Maria Cino — lost two. Here are the results:
It's basically a stalemate after the third round of balloting. Wagner moved the most, increasing her total by 5 votes, but everyone else is essentially in a holding pattern. Among the candidates and their supporters now is the time for cutting deals. Anuzis' prediction was that things would change significantly on the fourth ballot may hold true. For now, he his staying in the race for the fourth round despite coming in last place in the last two rounds. During break between votes, Wagner and Steele were spotting huddling in private — are they close to a deal?
2:50 PM | Third round of balloting begins. Once again all five candidates remain in the race.
2:30 PM | Priebus inches upward. Wisconsin's Reince Priebus added 7 votes to his tally in the second round of voting — the same number of votes that Steele lost. Maria Cino lost two supporters, Ann Wagner added four and Saul Anuzis lost two. Here are the results:
The second round results indicate that Priebus, who went into today's vote with the highest number of public endorsements, remains in strong contention to win the race. However, he's not there yet. Priebus is still 33 votes away from a majority, and there's a chance that another candidate could still find a path to victory.
The latest count was not good news for incumbent Michael Steele who lost more supporters than any other candidate — an indication of his vulnerability. The chairman has pledged not to get out of the race.
Republican strategist Mike Murphy predicted this week that Priebus had the best shot of winning. His take after the second round: "The Priebus band-wagon is about to roll out. Maybe a quick deal can slow it down, and that's hard to do with 30/27 Cino/Wagner number."
2:10 PM | Second round of voting begins. No surprise here: all five candidates are remaining on the ballot for another round.
1:45 PM | Preibus Takes An Early Lead. Wisconsin GOP Chair Reince Priebus bested Chairman Michael Steele by one vote in the first round of balloting. Results are as follows.
It's stronger-than-expected outcome for Cino, who has the backing of powerful endorsers like former Vice President Dick Cheney and House Speaker John Boehner. RNC insider had been saying that those endorsements don't matter much in the insular world of the committee, but could they be wrong? Boehner met personally with committee members earlier this week to round up support for CIno. The question now is whether Steele's coalition begins to disintegrate in the second round and, if so, where his votes go.
There are all sort of theories swirling around right now. Some campaign strategists here are privately saying that even though Priebus' won the most votes, they were surprised he didn't get more. As the theory goes, some think Team Priebus was holding back some votes in order to show momentum during the second round.
A Cino aide said their strategy going forward was simple: "Hope to hold it in 2nd ballot shifting. Build from there."
1:20 PM | Voting begins. RNC Co-Chairman Jan Larimer, who is at the podium today, has begun the first round of balloting for chair.
Members of the committee are starting what could become a very familiar routine today — heading to the front of the ballroom here as their states are called to receive ballots. They then proceed to nearby voting booths to make their choices.
1:00 PM | Nominations. Members of the committee nominated each of the five candidates in advance of the first ballot, delivering short speeches on behalf of their pick.
“Reince is the leader that we need to unify our committee,” said Wisconsin GOP Committeeman Steve King.
Ohio GOP Chairman Kevin DeWine, in nominating Maria Cino, noted that “she has the confidence of our party’s highest ranking official” House Speaker John Boehner.
Michigan Committeewoman called Michael Steele the “individual best-positioned as RNC chairman to lead us in the next election and to lead us in our common goals.”
Supporters of Ann Wagner referred to her as “the complete package.”
Morton Blackwell, RNC committeeman from Virginia, nominated Saul Anuzis: “Two years ago Saul was my second choice,” Blackwell said, but this year he is Blackwell’s pick. The Virginia GOP leader cited Anuzis’ ability to integrate the Tea Party into the GOP.
12:45 PM | Cino predicts "a very, very good day." Shortly before the vote, Maria Cino, who served in the George W. Bush administration and has held a variety of positions in Republican politics over the last few decades, handicapped her chances.
"We started off slow, we had a great week, good endorsements," she said. "I think we’ve really proved to the members that we can run the committee, we can raise money."
Cino added, "Just by the encouragement that we got from everybody, I think it’s going to be a very, very good day."
12:30 PM | Anuzis talks strategy. This is Michigan GOP Chair Saul Anuzis' second run for RNC chairman. He ran two years ago and dropped out of the race after the fifth ballot (Steele won on the sixth). Today he said that he was looking toward the fourth ballot as a pivotal point.
"The first four ballots for myself, Maria Cino and Ann Wagner are almost identical," Anuzis said. "We're going to just hold."
He predicted that both Steele and Preibus could do well in the first rounds of balloting, but "for the rest of us the race doesn't open up until the fourth ballot."
The race he said is all about getting to the magic number — 85 — a majority of the 168 committee members.
"The trick for us will be what is the movement," Anuzis said. "How much do we get and what are the possibilities?"
12:00 PM | An Argument for Preibus. Wisconsin RNC Committeeman Steve King told ABC News ahead of today's vote that Priebus' record as party chair in the Badger State has helped him make the case to fellow members.
"We went from — not a blue state — we went from a black state to a red state literally overnight," King said of Wisconsin's electoral shift toward to the GOP, including the election of GOP Gov. Scott Walker and Republican Sen. Ron Johnson.
"That just didn’t happen because of the tsunami that went over thte country, that’s been a couple years in the making," King said, citing Preibus' leadership of the state's Republican Party as a key factor.
On what kind of chairman Priebus would be if elected, King said: "He is operational, functional and that’s what we need. He stays on message, he’s focused, he doesn't put his foot in his mouth — and again, there’s four years of good experience in Wisconsin there."
11:50 AM | Mike Duncan's Prediction. Former RNC Chairman Mike Duncan was tight-lipped when asked about his prediction for the chairman's race, saying only: "Tomorrow will be a better day." Duncan's sentiment undoubtedly reflects the opinion of many RNC members on hand today — many of them seem ready move on from what has been a contentious fight for the committee's top job that played out, in part, in volleys of nasty e-mails sent by members supporting or opposing particular candidates.
11:30 AM | Budget Woes. Several members of the RNC opposed adoption of the committee's budget over concerns about the RNC's enormous debt, which is estimated to be in the $20 million range. The GOP chairmen of Texas and North Carolina, Steve Munisteri and Tom Fetzer, are among those who said they won't vote to ratify the budget. In the end, the budget was approved by a voice vote.
11:10 AM | RNC Chair Michael Steele Touts "Republican Renaissance." RNC Chair Michael Steele addressed members of the committee this morning, giving what could be his farewell remarks if he does not win today.
"As we come to this particular crossroads and as elections lie ahead for what happens next," Steele said, "I want to thank you so much for the chance to serve at a time when our party is changing struggling to grow, regain its footing, to find its voice, reconnect with people and to stand proud again."
Steele touted what has been the main talking point of his campaign for re-election — the Republican Party's 2010 election year successes.
"The efforts of our party — a party once tagged ad an endangered species – speaks for itself," Steele told his membership. "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."
"Now the task become harder because President Obamais waiting for you," Steele cautioned. "The Democrat party is waiting for you."
The chairman also offered a shout out to House Speaker John Boehner, who has endorsed and actively campaign for one of his opponents, Maria Cino: "I thank heaven we have Speaker Boehner right there on the front lines for us."
"We hope when we leave this meetring that you're ready to gve the Democrats hell over the next two years."