OXON HILL, Md. — The national Republican Party, coming off huge election victories but facing a $22 million debt and an internal war over identity, ousted chairman Michael Steele Friday and chose Wisconsin party chief Reince Priebus to lead in the run-up to the 2012 presidential race.
The embattled Steele dropped his re-election bid halfway through an afternoon of balloting when it became clear he could not win another two-year term after a first marked by verbal missteps and financial woes.
"We have to get on track. And together we can defeat Barack Obama in 2012," Priebus, the chairman of the Wisconsin GOP, said in a brief victory speech, pleading for unity within the fractured 168-member Republican National Committee. "We all recognize that there's a steep hill here ahead of us, and the only way that we'll be able to move forward is if we're all together."
Southwest Florida GOP activist Al Hoffman was one of five former GOP finance chairmen and another national party leader who sent a joint letter to all of the Republican committee members voting on the chairmanship, urging them to pick someone other than Steele. The letter cited excessive spending, poor leadership and inadequate fundraising.
Hoffman said he was pleased with the outcome Friday.
"I'm gratified," Hoffman said, calling Steele's departure a "turning of the corner."
Florida's state party chairman, who will step down and be replaced today during a convention in Orlando, also praised the RNC's choice.
"He's a breath of fresh air,'' said outgoing chairman John Thrasher, who supported Priebus. "He believes in electing Republicans and understands the core mission of the Republican Party."
A former top lieutenant to Steele, Priebus (pronounced Pree-bus) promised to hire a top-notch staff, restructure the organization and put it on solid financial footing so the next GOP presidential nominee will be prepared to take on Obama.
Most urgently, Priebus, 38, must retire an RNC debt of about $22 million owed to vendors and banks, as well as lure back demoralized donors who have been so frustrated with Steele's management that they sent their dollars elsewhere or didn't open their wallets at all last year. The party had only about $1 million cash on hand at year's end.
Additionally, Priebus will have to figure out how to navigate a GOP civil war in which conservatives and tea party disciples are trying to pull the Republican Party further to the right, to the chagrin of moderates and some longtime establishment leaders.
The voting unfolded with an air of uncertainty on Friday, with round after round of ballots being conducted with a common call for change but without any clear consensus over whom the next leader should be. Priebus led the balloting throughout, but he did not reach the 85 votes needed to secure a majority of the 168-member committee until the seventh round.
Saul Anuzis, a longtime Michigan Republican official, received 43 votes and Maria Cino, a former Bush administration official and the preferred candidate of Speaker John Boehner, received 28 votes. Steele and Ann Wagner of Missouri dropped out when it became clear their candidacies had failed to win enough support.
In dropping out, the embattled Steele said, "I will step aside because I think the party is ready for something different."
But even in his departure, he sought to have an influence on the race, endorsing the candidacy of Cino.
Steele, a telegenic though gaffe-prone party leader, had argued that he should be re-elected because of the GOP's record of coast-to-coast victories.
The first black chairman of the Republican Party, Steele was elected to a two-year term in January 2008 just as Obama — the country's first black president — was taking office.
Since then, Steele, the former lieutenant governor of Maryland, has spent much of his tenure fending off criticism. He faced frequent complaints about questionable spending, anemic fundraising, staff shake-ups and cringe-inducing comments.
Demands for him to resign came last year after the disclosure that RNC money was spent on a $2,000 tab at a sex-themed California night club, and when he said that the 9-year-old conflict in Afghanistan was a mistaken "war of Obama's choosing." It began under Bush.
Times staff writer Adam Smith contributed to this report, which contains information from the Associated Press and New York Times.