Green Bay, Wisc.
It’s a good time to be Reince Priebus. Beyond the obvious—that he’s from Wisconsin and the Green Bay Packers are once again a favorite to win the Super Bowl—the chairman of the Republican National Committee will spend much of his party’s convention week in Tampa collecting attaboys for his recent success: the dramatic turnaround of the RNC, the successful defense of Scott Walker’s recall challenge, the record-breaking pace of GOP fundraising, and the selection of Paul Ryan, a longtime friend and political ally, as Mitt Romney’s running mate.
The 40-year-old has already gotten credit for the changes at the RNC and his role in helping to ensure Scott Walker remained Wisconsin’s governor. But even if Priebus had the least direct influence on the last of these—Paul Ryan’s joining the GOP ticket—it might well best represent the kind of change he has brought to his party.
Even through their success in the 2010 midterm elections, party leaders were wary of embracing entitlement reform. This is no longer true. Though the legion of strategists, pollsters, mail vendors, and media -consultants who run GOP campaigns counseled caution, Priebus urged his party to figure out how to run and win on the issues championed by his friend. At the debate before RNC members shortly before they elected him, Priebus was asked what it means to be a Republican and what the party should focus on. His response was telling: “We’re about to walk off a -fiscal cliff and I think the RNC chairman ought to take a chance and promote that conservative platform every chance they get to do it.”
Despite historic Republican gains in the 2010 midterm elections, the RNC was a broken institution when Priebus took it over in mid-January 2011. The staff was demoralized. Bills were unpaid. Big donors were fuming.
One year earlier, I sat across the table from a former Republican party chairman who explained in great detail that some of the GOP’s top contributors had never heard from Michael Steele, then the party chairman. His claim wasn’t that they hadn’t been coddled in the way that they’d been accustomed to, but that these contributors, including individuals who had previously made six-figure donations to the party, had not been contacted at all. Steele hated to make those calls.
Priebus doesn’t. He spends most of his time on the telephone with donors—he guesses 70 percent. At the committee meetings before the election that elevated him to chairman, Priebus sold himself as someone willing to do the unglamorous spadework required to rebuild the party. In a speech before he was elected, Priebus spoke of the importance of money. “The next chairman is going to be sitting in that office for five or six hours a day running through major donors lists,” he said. “That is going to be the big challenge—whether it be technology, whether it be get-out-the-vote, whether it be a 50-state strategy—it will all come down to money.”
It’s the blocking and tackling of modern American politics—it’s not glamorous but it needs to be done. The first part of Priebus’s two-step pitch is simple: He explains what’s at stake in the 2012 election. The second part is more complicated: He has to convince would-be donors that they should give their money to the RNC rather than to the growing number of outside groups involved in campaigns. The RNC, he explains, is the only entity that can coordinate with the presidential campaign, which ensures a consistent message.
When Priebus took over, there was talk, perhaps exaggerated, that the committee would not be able to make payroll, and the direct mail program was so overused that its benefits barely outweighed its costs. The RNC is now swimming in cash and seems to break records with each new campaign finance report. Some of this is happening because of the intense feelings people have about Barack Obama. But those feelings existed before Priebus took over and did not automatically translate into dollars.
The RNC has outraised the DNC every month in total individual contributions since March 2011—Priebus’s second full month in charge. In January 2011, the RNC had $2.1 million cash on hand and debt of $21.4 million. The DNC, by contrast, had $9.1 million cash on hand and was $16.8 million in debt. By July 2012, those numbers had changed dramatically. The RNC had $88.7 million in cash on hand and debt of $9.9 million; the DNC had cash on hand of $15.4 million and debt of $4.5 million. That’s a cash-on-hand advantage of some $73 million.
Regardless of what happens in November, Priebus will get credit for turning the RNC around. The more interesting part of his legacy is still an unknown. What will come of the Republican party’s embrace of entitlement reform and its elevation of Paul Ryan, the man who embodies it?
Priebus was officially neutral as Mitt Romney decided on his running mate. But since his first day as chairman Priebus has taken every -opportunity to showcase Ryan and mainstream his policy arguments among skeptical political pros. The two men have known each other well for some 15 years. Priebus got his start in grassroots Republican party leadership as chairman in Wisconsin’s First District—the seat Ryan has held since 1998. (Priebus has been friends with Ryan’s chief of staff and closest adviser, Andy Speth, even longer—dating back to their undergraduate days at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater.) After Ryan decided against a presidential bid, the RNC chairman tapped Ryan as head of the RNC’s Presidential Trust, and the two men traveled the country raising $21 million for the party this spring.
Priebus’s embrace of Ryan goes beyond their shared background and friends. Priebus is a conservative who has long had an interest in policy. He was one of the first state party chairmen to embrace the Tea Party and seek to integrate its efforts into those of the party. In part, he recognized early what a political force it could be, but, as important, he agreed with the arguments Tea Partiers were making.
Priebus’s role in the election of Senator Ron Johnson of Wisconsin best illustrates his approach to these issues. Johnson met with Priebus in February 2010, as he considered jumping into an already-crowded race against Senator Russ Feingold. The two men chatted, and Priebus put Johnson in touch with the well-regarded team of strategists at On Message, Inc.—a Republican firm.
But Johnson says his most valuable help came after that. “We talked on a regular basis at 7:30 in the morning to discuss issues,” Johnson recalls. Johnson knew what he believed, of course, and knew why he wanted to run, but Priebus could help him shape his message. “He’d say: ‘Here’s the current thinking among conservatives on this issue.’ He helped me frame what I wanted to say, and he knew the issues cold.” Johnson credits him jokingly, “There’s just no way I could have done this without him. So I put a lot of the blame on him.”
Priebus’s role as the enabler of conservative reformers is a positive. But with some grumbling from (anonymous) Republican professionals about the challenges of selling the Ryan budget to voters, it’s a safe bet that Priebus will be blamed for his advocacy of Ryan if Mitt Romney loses in November. He doesn’t seem terribly concerned.
“If you lose, there are a million things to point to to explain the loss. They can tell you ‘I told you so’ on lots of things—you shouldn’t have had the convention in Florida, you should have gone to North Carolina.”
Priebus has little patience for those anonymous Republicans who think their party should have again avoided any discussion of serious entitlement reform. “We don’t have any more time to have this conversation. If you think we can wait four or eight years, you’re not living in reality.”
His job requires him to focus on November, but the urgency of the problems makes him look beyond that. “We not only have to win, but we need to win with a mandate to change the economy and the unsustainable path of the country.”
Stephen F. Hayes is a senior writer at The Weekly Standard.