Priebus’s Way Forward

by NR Interview
The RNC chairman aims to build a party to compete with Obama’s organization and the Left’s soft-money groups.

On Thursday, Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus chatted with National Review’s Jim Geraghty about the committee’s Growth and Opportunity Project report, released Monday, and the next steps for the party.


JIM GERAGHTY
: Obviously, it’s been a busy week for you. What do you think of the reaction to the Growth and Opportunity Project report, and has anything surprised you about that reaction?

REINCE PRIEBUS: I think the reaction was extremely positive. Obviously not everyone agrees with all 219 points made in the report, and I wouldn’t expect everyone to agree with all 219 points. But I think that, for the most part, people see a party that wants to be a permanent organization on the ground in the community, that wants to be mechanically much better, as well as digitally, and that understands that we can’t compete anymore with five-month drop-in campaigns the way that we used to.

We were successful with that at some point. But nowadays with our competition, and President Obama, who sends hundreds of people with clipboards out into neighborhoods, the reality is that we’ve got to step up and start doing it [differently]. That’s my world, Jim. My world is trying to run a massive party organization on a year-round basis without the presidency. It’s why a lot of the focus of the report is on mechanics and ground game and data. It’s because that’s really the heart and soul of what our party has to become.


GERAGHTY
: This was a report that largely stayed away from policy decisions, except for one on immigration. And I saw in your press conference that you seemed to be indicating that you don’t think the party chairman should be saying what should be in an immigration bill. Why did the report end up making that one hot-button-issue policy recommendation, and do you think that one point is dominating the discussion of the report?

 

PRIEBUS: It was the result of talking to 50,000 people. On the comprehensive-immigration-reform issue, there was clearly a significant barrier in reaching Hispanic voters, both on that issue and the comment that Romney made in regard to “self-deportation.” That caused us to have significant roadblocks with reaching out to Hispanic voters. . . . 

It’s just a reality of trying to connect the dots on the ground. It identifies something that has to be dealt with by folks in the legislature. Otherwise, we’re going to continue to be inhibited.


GERAGHTY
: As you discuss this issue, do you sense any fear that while there’s one large demographic of voters that is turned off by this, at the same time, there’s this chunk of Republican voters who think “self-deportation” is just fine, and who see any path to citizenship as de facto amnesty? Otherwise, Romney wouldn’t have said it, right?

PRIEBUS: First of all, I am not in favor of amnesty, and this party is not in favor of amnesty. I think we’re being intellectually lazy here by seeing the words “comprehensive immigration reform” and then automatically jumping to the conclusion that we’re talking about amnesty.

[Kentucky senator] Rand Paul just announced he’s in favor of comprehensive immigration reform. Now, my guess is that Rand Paul’s version of comprehensive immigration reform might be different from [Arizona senator] John McCain’s version.

I think we all have to realize that some kind of immigration reform, in a broad way, is very important to our country. By doing nothing, with all of these sanctuary cities, we’ve got amnesty right now. The question is, what are we going to do about our immigration system, which is clearly broken? To me, that doesn’t seem very complicated.

What the details of the bill are and what the bill drafters and legislators are doing right now, that’s something I’m not involved with. But I clearly know, and anyone who spends time in Hispanic communities in this country knows, that some form of immigration reform is necessary to deal with this issue.


GERAGHTY
: Then there’s the section: “Already, there is a generational difference within the conservative movement about issues involving the treatment and the rights of gays — and for many younger voters, these issues are a gateway into whether the Party is a place they want to be.” Can the Republican party oppose gay marriage and still appeal to these younger voters for whom treatment of gays is a gateway issue?

PRIEBUS: Yeah. I think it’s sort of like our moms used to say, “It’s not what you say, it’s how you say it.” I just did a show with [former Arkansas] governor Huckabee. Here’s a person who always strikes the perfect tone on all of these issues. . . . As a Christian and as a Republican chairman, you can have an opinion on these issues, but you have an obligation to treat people with dignity and respect. I don’t see how those things are incompatible. I think for someone to argue that they’re incompatible, that’s not natural to me.

When I was asked at the National Press Club whether the national party would cut off [Ohio senator] Rob Portman from funding . . . I don’t know a whole lot of people in our party who believe that Rob Portman is not a good Republican and that we ought to cut someone off because we might have a disagreement on an issue. I just don’t see that as a winning place for our party to be, and I don’t think a whole lot of people would disagree with me on that.


GERAGHTY
: When the five-person panel turned in their report, was there any recommendation in there that you disagreed with or saw as creating more problems than it would solve?

PRIEBUS: Oh, I don’t know. Honestly, everybody’s going to get into the whole nitpicking thing. Not everything is simple. On campaign finance, I agree with most of that, but there are some things there that are very difficult to do. Some of the areas in regards to how you change rules within the RNC could be difficult.

I don’t know how to answer that question without walking through all 219 items with you.


GERAGHTY
: What do you expect to achieve with LULAC, La Raza, and the NAACP? And how soon will those dialogues begin?

PRIEBUS: It’s a recommendation from the committee, but I also think it’s all part of showing up. I don’t think the ground operation is going to suddenly change just because we go and give a few speeches. I’m not naïve. But it’s all part of showing up. It’s all part of the overall effort, which is going into these communities and talking about the Republican party and the things we believe in.

It’s a complement to our general efforts to be a party that’s everywhere. If you’re going to be a party that’s everywhere and that competes everywhere, we have to be in those places.


GERAGHTY
: Most of these ideas, particularly the data-analytics institute, will require funding. How much money will the RNC need to implement all of these recommendations?

PRIEBUS: On the data front, we have to figure out a way, with our partners, to make sure that we can build out a data-sharing platform that’s legally compliant and state-of-the-art.

That’s why the RNC has to be the main funding mechanism for the effort. To bore you for just a minute: Barack Obama built his data platform, which some people have guessed was a $300 million effort. I don’t know what the truth is to that, but some people have guessed that. The difference is that he built the data, so he owns the data, and therefore Barack Obama can use the data. There’s no hard-money, soft-money problem.

Where you have a candidate who just came through a primary broke [as Romney did last cycle], they obviously didn’t have the resources to build out an equally aggressive data platform.

Either the candidate has to have the upgraded data, or the national party has to be able to transfer that upgraded data to the candidate.

If you had a friend who said, “I’m going to spend $100 million, we’re going to solve this problem once and for all. We’re going to get the voter files, we’re going to do A, B, C, and D” . . . That entity can’t just transfer that data to the candidate, because now you’re using soft money to upgrade data and give it to a candidate who can only take hard money.

The challenge here is that we have to build out and compete against Barack Obama’s already formulated data platform. The RNC has to spearhead it all.

I don’t have an exact figure for what it’s going to cost, because we’re building out our platform now. But the estimate that I have heard is tens of millions.


GERAGHTY
: I love the call to get rid of caucuses, but I understand lots of folks, Rand Paul and Rick Santorum among them, are virulently opposed. How hard will the RNC push states like Iowa on this?

PRIEBUS: We have to work cooperatively with our state parties and state legislatures. The rules have been changed, by the way. Caucuses and statewide convention events have to award delegates. Beauty contests that don’t award delegates aren’t really recognized by the RNC.

But it would have to be a cooperative effort.

There are a couple of things people agree on. One, we have to move back the convention from August, back to June or July. There’s a good reason for it; it’s a campaign-finance reason. When you do that, you’re automatically going to be shortening the primary process itself. You’re going to be compressing the primary under the rules. I think the shorter primary process is really important. Our focus is more on the primaries, the length of the primaries, the convention placement, and what’s happening in our primaries with our candidates when they’re slicing each other apart through 23 debates in a seemingly never-ending primary. It’s a problem.

There are other factors in play. Super PACs extended the primary, clearly. Being the only race in town extended the primary, and gave even more focus to those 23 debates. I understand there were some factors in the last election that probably won’t be there in 2016. Nonetheless, we have an opportunity to reform our primary system now, and I think we should.


GERAGHTY
: The report mentioned moving to regional primaries, with a certain number of “carve out” states that would keep their traditional early role in the presidential-primary process. Which states do you envision having the carve-out role?

PRIEBUS: That’s probably going to be something that will be decided by the [RNC] rules committee. It’s been debated since Bill Brock was chairman around here [from 1977 to 1981]. This isn’t really any kind of a new debate. But I suspect that this is going to be an important thing for our party to talk about and resolve. One thing people really do want is an orderly primary that is not confusing. The candidates running don’t know what primary is going to be next and where they need to be.

Whatever we decide, we have to decide it early so that our candidates and the public know exactly what the road map is going to be for our party. I would like an orderly primary that is shorter, with an earlier convention, so that we can get on with the general election.


GERAGHTY
: Are you guys at the committee struggling with a chicken-and-egg situation, in that you’re trying to build an infrastructure to help improve the perception of the party, yet the perception of the party will be heavily driven by its candidates, and that’s something you don’t really control?

PRIEBUS: It’s not totally out of our hands. Let me step back to the premise.

The RNC is not really competing against the DNC. That’s not our competition. Our competition is really Barack Obama’s organization, along with all of their soft-money organizations.

You have an RNC, a hard-money organization, trying to take the lead against all of them — and one that’s all of the above on the other side of the aisle.

Instead of whining about it, complaining about it, we decided to come up with a game plan that’s going to deal with it. That’s why you see 219 recommendations. Most of them can be agreed to by people, some not, but if you’re going to be big and bold and take on the entire Democratic establishment, you have to be pretty far-reaching.

We also have to be not just a political party but a community-based, coast-to-coast operation that includes everything from educating people about what our party believes to our proud history of liberty and equality and freedom. We don’t get out and say “I’m a Republican because . . . ” enough.

We have an obligation to build a massive organization to help lead this effort. That might mean we get out there and talk about issues. How about having a party that can explain in South Florida, and places like Kissimmee and others, about the Paul Ryan budget and why saving Medicare is important?

We’re right on the math a lot of the time, but sometimes explaining our position takes a little bit more time. And it’s worse if you’re not in the community to do it.

We just have to be granular, and I’m just worried that if we don’t start doing this, we’re going to fall farther behind.


GERAGHTY
: Most of the 2013 elections are looking uncompetitive or are a bit farther down the road, but any thoughts on the special House elections or two gubernatorial races this year?

PRIEBUS: We want to get some of our mobile apps and digital applications up to speed this year. We want to do some new things on voter data and get-out-the-vote efforts.

These races are going to give us a good opportunity to test these applications, and obviously we have to get a lot of what we’re talking about in this plan up and running before 2014.

My hope is that some of them will be ready in 2013. Our ground operation is going to be out there, and we can do some really good testing to see if we can make a difference in some communities we haven’t really been in before. Virginia will be a good test, because that appears to be much closer than New Jersey right now.

As a party, we’re going to be big and bold. We can’t continue to operate the way that we have. We’re financially very secure — we’re the only national committee in Washington, D.C., that isn’t in debt. We have the ability to fix some of the things we need to fix. We understand that the candidate is the most important ingredient, but we need to make sure we are doing the work underneath to get our candidates across the finish line.

— Jim Geraghty writes the Campaign Spot on NRO.