How Priebus Won RNC Chair

National Harbor, Md.–The desire for a “nuts and bolts” political mechanic who was acceptable to party conservatives fueled the election of Reince Priebus as Republican National Chairman here today.

In a marathon seven ballots today at the Winter meeting of the 167-member Republican National Committeee today, Wisconsin State Chairman Priebus led four opponents, including incumbent RNC head Michael Steele.  After four ballots in which he successively lost votes, the embattled Steele finally withdrew and endorsed former Bush Administration official  Maria Cino.

But it wasn’t enough.  Of the 28 votes behind Steele before his exit, only eleven went to Cino, eight went to Michigan’s National Committeeeman Saul Anuzis, and the remaining nine put Priebus closer to victory.  On the seventh ballot–which RNC sources say was a record in chairman’s races–the Wisconsin man won with a solid 97 votes.

Little known outside the Badger State and the RNC, Priebus nonetheless marshalled strong and early support based on his record in the ’08 elections:  last fall, Badger State Republicans picked up the U.S. Senate seat, governorship, two new U.S. House seats, and control of both houses of the state legislature.

Priebus was also the beneficiary over some of the discontent that dogged Steele.  The GOP’s big 2010 win notwithstanding, the national chairman was repeatedly playing defense over the RNC’s twenty-million plus debt, the lack of a 72-hour get-out-the-vote program, and staff turnover at party headquarters.  Illinois State Party Chairman Pat Brady and California National Committeeman Shawn Steele, both early backers of Michael Steele In the ’09 race, both bolted to Priebus in ’11.

“I was for change,” said Massachusetts RNC member Ron Kaufman, onetime political director in the elder George Bush’s White House, who would not say who he backed other than someone other than Steele, “Michael was a decent guy, but when the party is $21.3 million in debt and major donors abandon the RNC, something is wrong.  At a time when fiscal responsibility is the big issue, the RNC was behaving like the Republican Congress was when they kept spending like the Democrats.”

Kaufman’s view was echoed by Colorado State Chairman Dick Wadhams, who said, “I didn’t back Michael in ’09, but I wanted him to succeed and regret things didn’t work out.  It was the internal operations that were his problems.”  (Wadhams supported Anuzis, but added “I know Reince and what he did in Wisconsin.  He’ll be a fine chairman).

For all the high marks he received as a party-builder, Priebus did face questions as to how conservative he was and whether he was too close to Mississippi Gov. and potential 2012 presidential hopeful Haley Barbour.  The latter question rose in large part because the governor’s nephew, Mississsippi National Committeeeman Henry Barbour, was a key operative in Priebus’s campaign.

“It was a proxy race between [top George W. Bush advisor and Cino backer] Karl Rove and Haley Barbour,” one political consultant told HUMAN EVENTS after Priebus’s election, “and Barbour won.”

Not so fast, several Priebus backers told me.  Both the candidate and his backers insisted that being supported by Henry Barbour in no way meant reciprocal support for Haley Barbour in 2012, that (like almost every RNC head going into a presidential year), Priebus was neutral.

Priebus and his team also took pains to rebut charges that he was somehow less-than-conservative or that he was unfriendly to the tea party movement.

“Reince spoke at a forum of ours on January 3rd,” National Young Republican Chairman Lisa Stockan recalled, “and he made a point of explaining how he worked with the tea partiers in his state and would do so nationwide. “

“I’ve known him a while on the RNC and he’s very, very conservative,” said South Dakota National Committeeewoman Mary Jean Jensen.

California’s RNC member Steele, a conservative activist since he was a teenage volunteer for Barry Goldwater in 1964, went furthest when he predicted that Priebus “will be the most conservative RNC chairman since Dean Burch in 1964 [Burch was a close Goldwater friend who served as party chairman during the ’64 campaign].”

Perhaps the best post mortem on the long contest came from Connecticut’s State Chairman (and Anuzis backer) Chris Healy, who said that “we wanted a chairman who could work well with the donors, the regular activists as well as the newer tea party folks, and the members of the RNC.  Reince made a strong case he could do all of that.”