Meet Reince Priebus, the RNC’s New Chairman

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The Republican National Committee has decided to turn the page on Michael Steele’s tumultuous chairmanship by installing Steele’s former right-hand man.

After seven rounds of balloting, Reince Priebus, chair of the Wisconsin GOP and the committee’s former general counsel, notched 97 votes of 168 votes, eclipsing the 85 needed to win by a sizable margin. He bested Michigan committeeman Saul Anuzis and Maria Cino, an operative and lobbyist whose influential backers included House Speaker John Boehner and former Vice President Dick Cheney. Priebus, 38, led wire-to-wire, but surged in the final rounds of balloting after Steele dropped his bid.

In a crowded field, Priebus was considered the front-runner for the post, and he boasted considerable support from GOP money men and strategists. That’s striking. One of the primary criteria for the new RNC chair–at least judging by the candidates’ promises to impose discipline and fiscal restraint onto an organization that seemed chaotic, profligate and unruly under Steele’s stewardship–was to pick the person whose leadership would be least like Steele’s.  And Priebus was the outgoing chairman’s former campaign manager and transition head.

He cast his candidacy as a way to restore the organization to sturdy footing. “I will run a tight ship at the RNC,” he wrote in a letter to committee members in December. “I will keep expenses low. I will put in strong and serious controls. We will raise the necessary funds to make sure we are successful. We will work to regain the confidence of our donor base and I will personally call our major donors to ask them to rejoin our efforts at the RNC.”

Those promises will be tested early. Among Priebus’ first tasks will be erasing its $20 million debt; after that, he’ll have to return the committee to its place as the nerve center of the Republican fund-raising apparatus in an era when big-donors frustrated have an increasing number of vehicles through which to funnel their largesse. “I don’t believe we can win the presidency without a highly functional RNC, and unfortunately we don’t have that today,” Priebus said in December.

A lawyer and Kenosha native who works in Milwaukee, Priebus touted his work in the blue-leaning Badger State, where Republicans won hard-fought Senate and governor’s races in November. He has earned raves from supporters for his organization and work habits, attributes he’ll need to cushion inevitable collisions between the GOP’s Tea Party, establishment and social conservative wings over the coming months. “He’s not a type A. He’s not a double-A or even triple-A. He’s a quadruple-A,” RNC Committeeman Steve King told the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel in 2009. “Reince also has that youthful optimistic outlook on things. He inoculates everybody with it.”

That may have helped him survive the RNC’s cutthroat electoral process, in which 168 committee members tap a putative head of the party through multiple rounds of secret balloting and innumerable private huddles during a winter summit in Maryland. But despite the RNC’s charged internal politics–Priebus once likened the vote-whipping process to “hand to hand combat”–the RNC is an organization that deals primary with fund-raising, not crafting policy. Its head is more a central banker than a message maven. If Priebus can re-tune the RNC into a smoothly functioning instrument, Priebus will likely be judged a success, or least an improvement. And as many party loyalists would likely concede, his predecessor hasn’t set a particularly high bar.