It’s an interesting time to be Reince Priebus. The RNC chairman has the tricky task of beefing up the GOP’s data and ground games in time for the 2014 midterms while keeping an eye on Hillary Clinton, 2016, and the party’s long-term electoral strategy.
In an interview with NRO, the Wisconsinite talked about amping up RNC opposition research on the former secretary of state — he says her people are “begging” for Republicans to get an early start on that front — whether Republicans have a chance at holding onto California representative Gary Miller’s seat (he just announced his retirement), and what he’ll say if you ask what he wants in his coffee. Here’s alightly edited transcription of our conversation:
NRO: The first thing I’m curious about is the RNC’s data push. If you had to make an elevator pitch — 30 seconds explaining what changes have happened since 2012 and then what kind of changes to expect in the next couple months — how would that go?
Reince Priebus: First of all, we didn’t get into this hole in a year, and it’s going to take longer to get out of this hole. The first thing we did is we said that we needed to hire data scientists and software engineers to fix and address a problem that I believe to be pretty serious in our party. So we hired some of the top talent around the country and we’re putting together a group of software engineers out in the Silicon Valley, and we’re expanding our offices in D.C. to address a real platform problem.
We’ve got loads of data. The problem is we really don’t have a platform for sharing and manipulating that data in a way that makes it easy for candidates to use or a central place for all the data that’s recovered to be placed into so it’s preserved for other races for years to come. We want more data, we want improved data, but our biggest problem isn’t data itself. It’s how we use that data and then take data to influence voters to get out and vote for our candidates.
NRO: Obviously we’re going to be hearing a lot about the Affordable Care Act from the GOP over the next nine months. Do you worry there could be oversaturation on that front?
Priebus: I think it’s going to be Obamacare all the time between now and November 5. If you ask me what day it is, I’m going to tell you it’s Obamacare. If you want to know what I want in my coffee, I’m going to tell you Obamacare. I’m going to talk about Obamacare all the time because I think it’s the No. 1 issue.
NRO: Are you going to have a national strategy like Gingrich in ’94 or are you going to be pushing more responsibilities to local committees?
Priebus: It’s in development. That’s about as far as I can take that. We need to talk about issues that unite our party. Certainly Obamacare is one of them, and our health-care alternatives is another, and I think school choice is one of them, I think a balanced budget is one of them. But how those issues are packaged and sold across the country come late summer and fall is something of conversation right now among members and senators and people at the Republican party.
NRO: Looking at the retirement of Gary Miller [a six-term Republican congressman from California]: From where I’m standing, it looks like Democrats are almost certainly going to get that seat. Is there anything we don’t know that makes you optimistic about that race?
Priebus: Obamacare! I think that the big question here is how far and how broadly that issue plays across America. The president’s own personal unpopularity is another issue. We kind of have the tale of two parties here: We’ve got one Republican party in the midterm that wins everything imaginable, including races in California. But we’ve got a party in a presidential year that’s been having a hard time winning. We haven’t really won a decisive presidential race in 24 years — more than 24 years now. We’re going to do well in the midterms: Obamacare and the economy and very issue-driven matters will drive the day this year, and that bodes well for our party. But as chairman, I have to figure out a way not just to do well in the midterms, but, as we’re competing this year, to make sure we’re putting out a ground operation across America that will stay in place and will continue to grow through 2016.
NRO: Clearly there’s a ton of coverage about Hillary. We’ve got committees being formed to draft her. Do you think that the RNC has a role in pushing back against that?
Priebus: Of course. It is part of the responsibility of the Republican National Committee to start redrafting the book and revising the everlasting book on Hillary Clinton. It’s our responsibility to be prepared. That would also go to people like [Maryland governor Martin] O’Malley, a person like Vice President Biden. But clearly with all the pots and pans being banged around by the Hillary Clinton folks, they’re just begging us to begin our work early.
NRO: Any Senate races in play people might not be thinking about?
Priebus: Minnesota. And then Oregon is intriguing. Colorado potentially gets on the map. It comes back to Obamacare and the president’s popularity being in the tank.
— Betsy Woodruff is a William F. Buckley Fellow at the National Review Institute.