RNCs Priebus looks at 2016 as do or die – Politico
After four years spent rebuilding and rebranding the GOP — and on the eve of a modern-record third term — Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus says it could all be for naught if Republicans fail to win the presidency next year.
“Running an RNC without the White House for another eight years — 16 years total — will be near an impossible task,” he said in a phone interview. “I don’t think people realize how hard it is to run a national party … without a president.”
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Priebus spoke to POLITICO Campaign Pro en route to the RNC’s annual meeting in San Diego, where on Friday he cruised to a third term leading the organization on a near-unanimous vote. More than a dozen current and former members of the committee, including several who opposed Priebus’ initial bid for the chairmanship, said the Wisconsinite’s fundraising prowess and mild-mannered competence had convinced them he’s the right person to lead Republicans into 2016. It’s a remarkable show of unity for a party that’s been ravaged by internal conflict in recent years.
“There’s a good argument that he’s the best RNC chairman we ever had,” said Mississippi committeeman Henry Barbour, whose uncle, Haley Barbour, led the organization from 1993 to 1997.
But the high praise and landslide reelection will be cold comfort for Priebus if the GOP, which now controls the House, Senate and a large majority of governorships and state legislatures around the country, loses the presidency in 2016.
“Keep in mind: 2016 could be a do-or-die moment for our party,” Priebus said in his acceptance speech on Friday. “I’m not one to be dramatic, but I want you to know I’m serious. We’re feeling good about 2014, but midterms are our natural strength. … Now we’re playing on their turf.”
Priebus is emphatic that his investments in the party’s digital operation and ground game have left it in the best position possible to take the White House next year. Already, the party is launching ground operations in swing states like Florida, Ohio, Virginia and North Carolina, he said, and operatives are registering potential Republican voters in minority communities and among youths, demographic groups that have largely abandoned the party in presidential elections.
Priebus took the reins of the party in 2011, months after the party surged to historic wins in the House of Representatives, with the backing of rising stars from his home state: newly elected Gov. Scott Walker and Rep. Paul Ryan. But, one year later, the party fell flat: Mitt Romney and the party’s Senate hopefuls were crushed.
GOP leaders around the country gave Priebus a mulligan, attributing Republican losses to a massive debtload he inherited and an uphill battle against an incumbent president.
“The party was just in shambles and made winning in ’12 hard for anybody,” said Ron Kaufman, an RNC committeeman from Massachusetts who was also part of Romney’s inner circle.
Priebus added: “In 2011, we didn’t have two credit cards that were functioning.”
It’s a characterization that Michael Steele — Priebus’ predecessor and the only African-American chairman in history — disputes, arguing that he made the investments necessary to expand the party’s reach for the 2010 elections.
“We took risks, tried to push the party beyond its comfort zone, engaged my community and many others with honesty and laid the foundation for the success everyone seems to be enjoying today,” he wrote in an email. “I did what I thought was necessary to win. I’m sure the current chairman is doing the same thing.”
Steele shared numbers he said suggests the RNC actually saw a decline in fundraising in 2014 from 2010, in addition to a sharp decline in Republican turnout. Much of the party’s growth today, he argues, is rooted in changes he made ahead of the 2010 midterm elections.
“The bottom line: We worked our asses off because that’s what you do when you want to win,” Steele wrote.
The RNC spent $176 million in the 2010 cycle, disbursed $26 million to other authorized committees (like the National Republican Senatorial Committee, the National Republican Congressional Committee and state parties) and ended that year with $21 million in debt. In contrast, through Nov. 24 of last year, the committee spent $142 million, disbursed $39 million to other committees and had $3.5 million in debt.
Priebus’ allies — and even his former adversaries — credit his financial stewardship for the committee’s turnaround. They also call him a masterful listener, giving all factions of the party a fair say in the direction of the GOP.
“If you’re looking for a person to say a bad word about Reince Priebus in this town, you can’t find one because he has done a spectacular job,” said Kaufman, the Massachusetts committeeman.
Priebus’ opponents in 2011 have largely come into the fold — minus Steele, who won a narrow plurality of votes on the first ballot of his reelection campaign but never came close to the majority necessary to secure a second term.
“He understood the game of being chairman and is playing it as well as anyone ever has,” said Saul Anuzis, a former Republican committeeman and state chairman from Michigan.
“I knew he would be a good chairman, but he really has surpassed what I thought in the beginning,” said Chris Devaney, the chairman of the Tennessee Republican Party, who gave the nominating speech on behalf now-Rep. Ann Wagner (R-Mo.), one of Priebus’ other opponents in 2011.
Priebus says he found success by emphasizing the unsexy part of party-building. He’s been relentlessly focused on investing in the party’s digital and data operations, as well as building a year-round ground game that can be called upon when it counts. While former Chairman Ken Mehlman was a tactical wizard and Haley Barbour was a charismatic coalition builder, Priebus has built his reputation by making the party good at its core functions, he says.
“We want to continue becoming a party that’s got its act together when it comes to the mechanics, the ground game, the data, all the things that a competent national party needs to be good at,” he said.
The party is also battling for relevance in the rapidly changing world of fundraising. In fact, when he called from Las Vegas, Priebus volunteered that he had just emerged from meetings with GOP megadonors Sheldon Adelson and Steve Wynn.
The rise of powerhouses like Adelson and Wynn — and a series of court decisions loosening rules on outside spending — has threatened traditional political parties. Cash raised by the parties is subject to restrictions that don’t apply to outside spenders like the two casino moguls.
“I don’t want the party to turn into being just a paper tiger,” said Republican national committeewoman Jo Ann Davidson of Ohio.
Priebus said his pitch to Adelson and Wynn is that the RNC, despite its limitations, is the best vehicle for their donations because unlike outside groups, it can coordinate directly with the party’s presidential nominee.
Priebus isn’t only thinking about the apparatus he’ll leave the party’s eventual nominee. He’s also taken widely supported steps to rein in a nominating process that many Republicans feel damaged Romney in 2012. Rather than two dozen debates and a six-month primary schedule, Republicans intend to cram most of the voting into a two-month window to limit the intraparty bashing and coalesce quickly behind a nominee.
But he also worries a presidential loss in 2016 would undermine everything he’s built. And unlike in 2012, when Priebus contends the Republican organization was wracked by debt and turmoil, there are no excuses this time around for the committee.
“The RNC is absolutely the key to us winning the White House,” said Priebus.
“We can’t just be a midterm party,” he added. “It becomes more and more difficult to keep people engaged and enthused — volunteers and donors.”
Walker, the Wisconsin governor, said Priebus’ emphasis on winning the White House is proof that he “plays for high stakes.” Although he said he views Priebus through “cheesehead-colored glasses,” Walker argued that Priebus wants to win the presidency so badly in part because it’ll effect more change than any down-ballot political victory.
“Those wins, they look good on paper, but they don’t have the same impact on policy,” said Walker.
Priebus isn’t taking sides in the primary, but he said he’s thrilled at the wide range of options for Republicans — arguing that Democrats have become “stale,” while Republicans have been more exciting to watch.
Asked about his moves to limit the GOP primary period, he added, “Thank God I’m going to take out some of the excitement.”
“For us to win a presidential election, we have to be just about perfect, and the Democrats have to be good,” Priebus said, echoing a refrain he’s repeated often in interviews and public appearances.
Perfection — and the high stakes he’s helped apply to the 2016 contest for the Republican Party’s future — has put a damper on what would otherwise be a triumphant reaffirmation of his leadership.
“I can tell you that being reelected doesn’t have the same magic it first did when I walked through the door,” he said.
Alex Isenstadt contributed to this report from Coronado, California.