SCOTT SIMON, host:
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.
Been a change at the top of the Republican National Committee, which yesterday denied Chairman Michael Steele's bid for another two-year term. Instead, the Republican central committee elevated a little known but highly regarded operative from Wisconsin who helped make that state one of the huge success stories for Republicans in the November elections.
The new chairman's name is Reince Priebus. And although Republicans won the House in November, Michael Steele's tenure was contentious. NPR's Don Gonyea reports.
DON GONYEA: It started as a five-person race, Michael Steele and a quartet of challengers. Among them, Reince Priebus, the Wisconsin state party chair who was considered the early favorite. The committee has 168 voting members. The voting started right after lunch. Priebus pulled ahead, but in ballot after ballot he still didn't have the 85 votes he needed to claim victory.
Finally, on the seventh ballot, Priebus went over the top. Moments later, he addressed the delegates.
Mr. REINCE PRIEBUS (Chairman, Republican National Committee): I just want to thank God, I want to thank Jesus for this moment. I just - I am so blessed, and I said that to you so many times.
GONYEA: But yesterday was not just about welcoming a new RNC chairman. It was also about saying goodbye to the old one. Michael Steele dropped out after four ballots. He spoke briefly, softly, his voice tinged with emotion.
Mr. MICHAEL STEELE (Former Chairman, Republican National Committee): We've done a lot of good things. We've worked hard. We've built the party. But it's very clear, the party wants to do something a little different and hopefully a little bit better. And this is tough because, you know, it is what it is.
GONYEA: During his two years, Steele lost the confidence of the RNC. Former close allies, Reince Priebus among them, turned against him. They criticized his management style. He was in the news too much for the wrong reasons -lavish spending on travel and questionable priorities. And there were fundraising difficulties. Many big donors stayed away, and the organization has racked up a debt that it said yesterday now totals $21 million. But in his concession speech, Steele pointed to the election results in November. He called that his legacy even amid the distractions.
Mr. STEELE: Despite the noise, we've had - Lord knows, we've had a lot of noise, haven't we, Jan(ph)? Despite the difficulties, we won.
(Soundbite of applause)
GONYEA: It was a standing ovation for Steele by the delegates who had, in essence, just fired him.
Afterward, former RNC chairman and current delegate Mike Duncan of Kentucky said Steele bowed out gracefully, but the change was needed.
Mr. MIKE DUNCAN (Former Chairman, Republican National Committee): The party wants to go in a different direction. We've got to bring our major donors back into the party. There's such a big taskforce ahead to pay off the debt and then to get ready for the presidential campaign for the nominee in 2012.
GONYEA: Meanwhile, Tea Party activists applauded the selection of Reince Priebus. In Wisconsin last year he worked with the Tea Party, joining forces to help the GOP carry all of the state's big races. Russ Walker is with Freedom Works, one of the leading organizers in the Tea Party movement.
Mr. RUSS WALKER (Freedom Works): Some states, you know, you have really this disconnect between the grassroots and the establishment and the party. And you just don't see that in places like Wisconsin, and I think you don't see that with a guy like Reince.
GONYEA: Moments later, out in the lobby, Priebus held his first news conference as chairman. He was asked about the Tea Party, which took on establishment GOP favorites in primaries last year, and which has already been critical of the new GOP leadership on the Hill.
Mr. PRIEBUS: I'm part of the grassroots movement. One of the things I've said is that our party is part of the conservative movement in this country. We're not in competition with it. We're going to do it right, we're going to do it together, and we're going to win in 2012. So thank you very much.
GONYEA: Newly elected Reince Priebus taking charge at the RNC.
Don Gonyea, NPR News, Washington.