Reince Priebus, the chairman who led the Wisconsin Republican Party to a sweep of major offices last November, won a seventh-round victory Friday in the battle to become Republican National Committee chairman, defeating two other candidates, including North Buffalo native Maria Cino.
Priebus drew 97 votes in the seventh round, 12 more than he needed for victory. Saul Anuzis, former chairman of the Michigan Republican Party, finished second with 43, while Cino finished third with 28.
The last round of voting capped a dramatic afternoon of politicking in which Cino, a onetime aide to former Rep. Bill Paxon, R-Amherst, surged early, but failed to get enough support even after Michael Steele, the current chairman, withdrew from the race and urged his supporters to back her.
Priebus finished first in every round of secret balloting and gained support throughout the day, as committee members coalesced around a Republican leader who made a special -- and successful -- effort to work with "tea party" groups in his state.
"I just want to thank God, I just want to thank Jesus for this moment," Priebus told the 168 committee members. "I have been so blessed."
In a brief interview after the vote, Cino termed her race "a pretty good run," noting she lasted through seven rounds. Two other candidates, Steele and Ann Wagner of Missouri, left the race after earlier rounds.
"We've got a great chairman," Cino said, speaking of Priebus and vowing to help him. "The most important thing is that we're all united. We've got a job to do in 2012, and now I know we're ready to do that job."
Priebus agreed, telling the committee members: "We can't wait to get to work to rebuild this party."
Priebus inherits a party that won back control of the House last year, but that, nonetheless, struggled under the leadership of Steele, who was known more for his gaffes than his fundraising -- the key mission of every party committee. He leaves the Republican National Committee with debts exceeding $20 million.
The new GOP chairman's first goal will be to eliminate that debt and to start building a war chest for next year's presidential race.
"We have to get on track," Priebus said. "And together we can defeat Barack Obama in 2012."
Cino's challenge proved unexpectedly strong. Going into the voting, she had only a dozen public supporters among committee members, fewer than any of the other candidates.
But she surprised early, finishing third in the first round of voting.
And for a moment -- when Steele withdrew from the race after the fourth round and, without explanation, urged committee members to support her -- Cino appeared likely to become Priebus' strongest challenger, if not national chairwoman.
Asked why Steele opted to endorse her when he pulled out of the race, Cino said she had "a friendship, a relationship" with Steele. She also noted that "we ran a clean campaign. We put forth ideas and solutions."
Unlike some of the other candidates -- especially Wagner, who withdrew after the sixth round -- Cino did not harshly criticize Steele's job performance in her public appearances during the campaign for the chairmanship.
Despite the Steele endorsement, his supporters scattered among the various candidates, in effect strengthening Priebus.
Priebus' performance in Wisconsin made him the favorite going in.
Cino, a longtime Republican politico who served top roles in winning GOP control of the House in 1994 and in George W. Bush's two presidential campaigns, won big-name support from House Speaker John Boehner and former Vice President Dick Cheney.
But some national committee members said they were leery of her because of her role in the big-spending George W. Bush administration and because she had worked as a lobbyist for the Pfizer drug conglomerate.
One thing was certain from the start, committee members said: Steele would not be re-elected.
A former lieutenant governor of Maryland and the first African-American Republican chairman, Steele came into office with a reputation as a charismatic leader who could counter the enthusiasm that Obama brought to the Democratic Party.
Instead, his term turned into a two-year series of mistakes. Two of his top aides had to resign after spending $2,000 in party money at a sex-themed Los Angeles nightclub. Again and again, Steele said things that upset other Republican leaders -- most notably when he incorrectly predicted that the party would not regain control of the House last year.
Friday, however, he left office with a graceful speech.
Addressing committee members in the Gaylord Hotel, he said: "I think the party is ready for something different. At this time, I will step aside for others to lead. But in so doing, I hope you all appreciate the legacy we leave.
"And with that, I exit stage right," he said, drawing a standing ovation from the crowd.