WASHINGTON --Reince Priebus was elected chairman of the Republican National Committee on Friday after Michael Steeledropped his bid to stay atop the party for another two years.
Priebus clinched the victory after seven rounds, securing 97 votes, more than the 85 required to win. Steele dropped out of the race after four rounds.
"At this time, I will step aside for others to lead," Steele told the168 RNC committee members at the Gaylord Resort in National Harbor, Md. "But in so doing, I hope y'all appreciate the legacy we leave. Despite the noise -- because lord know we had a lot of noise -- despite the difficulties, we won."
Steele got a standing ovation after his announcement following a tenure marked by controversy and embarrassment despite huge Republican gains in the fall. Steele urged supporters to vote for former RNC Deputy Chairwoman Maria Cino.
But Priebus beat out Cino along with former Michigan state GOP chairman Saul Anuzis and former RNC Co-Chairwoman Ann Wagner.
Priebus will oversee the 2012 election cycle, in which Republicans, who now control the House, hope to capture the Senate and the White House. But Priebus must also 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.
Priebus also 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 even further to the right, to the chagrin of moderates and some longtime establishment leaders.
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.
Longtime establishment Republicans and GOP elders in Washington argued that he damaged the party's image and its long-term fiscal health.
Steele angered them by predicting the GOP wouldn't win House control last fall; Republicans did win. He also drew their ire when he criticized fellow Republicans in a book that GOP leaders didn't know he was writing until it was published.
He lashed out at critics, telling them to "get a life." Steele also drew fire for collecting payments for his speeches.
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.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.