Besides telling donors that he can replicate his Wisconsin success, Preibus will argue that the mistakes of the past are just that: in the past. Despite his work as counsel for the RNC during Steele’s term, he is a fresh face, figuratively as well as literally. Not only do many Washington Republicans and grassroots conservatives not know him, they don’t know how to pronounce or spell his name. (It’s pronounced “Rynce PREE-bus.”)
Before the vote, one Anuzis backer figured Priebus’s youthful looks and energy would work against him: “You can’t look like that, sound like that, and have a name like that and be the guy who rescues a much-mocked organization,” he chuckled. But the RNC members apparently saw it differently.
Still, a primary problem facing the RNC is that, among the national party committees, it is the jack of all trades and master of none. While it can play a role in presidential, gubernatorial, senatorial, and House races, it has primary responsibility for none of them, and thus it has a harder time saying, “If you support us, we can help this particular Republican win this particular race.” If the recent cycles have indicated anything, it is that Republican donors are excited by particular candidates — Marco Rubio, Pat Toomey, Sharron Angle, Scott Brown. A key factor in whether Priebus can overcome the RNC’s budgetary and trust issues will be whether he can craft a distinct and compelling role for the committee in the hearts of Republicans determined to make Obama a one-term president.
For much of Friday, it appeared the voting would go on well into the evening. In the initial ballots, not many votes separated the leading candidates from the rest of the pack. On the first ballot, frontrunner Priebus’s 45 votes put him only 22 ahead of last-place finisher Saul Anuzis; in the second ballot, Priebus’s 52 was only 30 ahead of Anuzis’s 22. By the third ballot, Priebus was at 54, Anuzis hanging around at 21. By contrast, two years earlier, Ken Blackwell finished with only 15 votes in the third round and withdrew after the next ballot, throwing his support to Steele. In the first three rounds of voting, no candidate gained or lost more than eight votes.
This year, the fourth ballot brought Steele to admit that the day was not going his way. “I just wanted to say, two years, we had a good time,” he said with his characteristic smile. “We’ve done a lot of good things, we’ve worked hard to build the party. But it’s very clear the party wants to do something different, and hopefully a little better. And I appreciate all the hard work that all of you brought to the table. I said that earlier this morning. Meant it from the heart. This is tough because it . . . ” he paused. “It is what it is.”
Steele publicly threw his support to Maria Cino, but his backers split: Cino gained eleven votes, nine went to Priebus and eight went to Anuzis. These next two rounds proved decisive, as Priebus jumped to 67, with a 27-point margin over the next-closest competitor, Cino. On the sixth ballot, supporters of last-place Ann Wagner began to slip away. Priebus jumped to 80, and the next-closet competitor was Anuzis, way behind at 37. At that point, the mood in the room changed. Wagner withdrew without endorsing any candidate, freeing up 17 members. Republican strategist Mike Murphy observed that once Priebus’s victory was perceived as inevitable, at least 50 RNC members wanted to be “the one who put him over the top.”
On the next ballot, he won 97 votes. And now the job and the enormous, pressing problems that come with it are his.