New RNC chairman ran as the anti-Steele

January 14, 2011

Reince Priebus, the newly elected chairman of the Republican National Committee, is most notable for not being named Michael Steele.

"Wow, thank you," Priebus told the committee after winning the chairmanship Friday evening. Wearing a my-name-is sticker on the lapel of his suit, the diminutive Wisconsin man knocked a giant gavel three times on a lectern bearing the elephant emblem of the GOP.

Speaking with an upper-Midwestern accent, Priebus immediately thanked God and "Jesus for this moment," and he urged the committee to come together to elect "conservative candidates." After acknowledging the "steep hill here ahead of us," he concluded his short speech by saying, "I am completely humbled to have the opportunity to lead this amazing party."

In style and substance, Reince Priebus (pronounced Rye-ence Pree-bus) represents a clear contrast to Steele, his predecessor as chairman. Steele was tapped to lead the party two years ago after the GOP had been rocked by Barack Obama's victory and with the committee seeking a dramatic change in direction and appearance.

Two years later, Priebus, who ran for chairman as the anti-Steele, is the face of a party that once again feels empowered to be unexciting. And he rose to election on a vow to put "a solid business plan in place to operate efficiently and effectively," a message that Republican donors longed to hear.

The RNC has accumulated a $20 million debt under Steele, while Priebus emphasized his record in Wisconsin, as leader of the state GOP since 2007, of tackling debt and raising cash despite tough campaign finance laws.

He campaigned with calls for greater cooperation between the Republican establishment and the tea party - "We did it together! The party and tea parties," he said in a debate - and he took credit for the major electoral gains for Republicans in Wisconsin during his tenure.

He also claimed, as did all of Steele's opponents, that the great Republican strides of the last year were in spite of the chairman's performance, not because of it.

But Priebus's victory also owes something to his critical support from GOP heavy hitters. He had a raft of official endorsements, although it is perhaps the unofficial, and unacknowledged, endorsement of Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour that mattered most.

A former lobbyist, RNC chairman and consummate Republican insider who has built the Republican Governors Association into a formidable fundraising juggernaut, Barbour clearly pulled for Priebus. On Friday, his nephew, Henry, nominated Priebus with a speech that suggested he could bring disillusioned big-money-donors back into the fold.

In the days leading up to the vote, Priebus's connection to the Mississippi governor provoked a backlash, with critics alleging that he was too closely aligned with Barbour, and that the relationship posed a potential conflict of interest if Barbour runs for president, as many expect him to do. Priebus sought to downplay the concerns even as Team Barbour advocated on his behalf.

Priebus also faced reports that, as a corporate attorney at the Wisconsin firm Michael Best & Friedrich, he helped clients tap into federal stimulus funds - a potentially damaging assertion in conservative circles. He countered that he never worked on those accounts.

Other opponents to Priebus argued that, in his capacity as general counsel to the RNC under Steele, he carried a measure of blame for whatever failures he ascribed to Steele.

"Either Priebus was part of the problem or clueless to it," Connecticut GOP Chairman Chris Healy wrote in a recent memo.

Priebus survived those attacks, and he demonstrated significant tactical prowess Friday by keeping his voting bloc intact throughout an election process that proved part caucus and part conclave, with candidates working the floor and cutting deals behind closed doors. He led every ballot of the five-hour-long vote.

While Steele showed throughout his tenure a talent for generating controversy, committee members seemed more concerned about the RNC's rising debt and the hemorrhaging of big donors over the last two years.

Priebus, however, has his own history of slip-ups. In a conference call with reporters to boost the candidacy of now-Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), he on three separate occasions said Obama - rather than Osama bin Laden - should be "executed like a war criminal."

But for the most part, he strikes Republicans as refreshingly bland. A father of two, Priebus's Facebook page features a photo of him and his wife, Sally, posing in formal evening wear. He told the crowd Friday that their first date was with Wisconsin Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R). "That should tell you something about me," he said.

In a recent interview for a list of notable Wisconsin lawyers younger than 40, he called his home town of Kenosha a "hot spot." His Twitter posts include such barn-burners as Dec. 24th's "Jesus is the light of the world - Merry Christmas!" and Dec. 27th's "Just leaving Fairbanks, Alaska - had moose steak for dinner. Great stuff!"

Judging from the reaction among Republican donors to Friday's vote, this was exactly what the party wanted.

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