Hail to the Chair
Reince Priebus has his work cut out for him.


Jim Geraghty

Picture being the new chairman of the Republican National Committee: Your committee has $20 million in debt, with payments due soon, at a time when every GOP candidate is emphasizing the importance of balanced budgets and fiscal responsibility. Of your debt, $5 million is due February 28, and you face this fundraising challenge in a bad economy when many of your large donors have abandoned you.

Meanwhile, President Obama is talking about raising $1 billion for his reelection campaign and perhaps another billion or so for outside groups aiming to help Democrats in 2012.

Wait, there’s more: National organizations that raised significant sums of cash to help put up ads with conservative messages, such as American Crossroads, cropped up last cycle and appear to be doing your job, only better, with past winning strategists like Ed Gillespie and Karl Rove helping out. Meanwhile, the past cycle saw so many errors made by the committee you now helm that many grassroots Republicans regard your organization with suspicion as wasteful and unfocused at best and too close to the Washington establishment at worst. These grassroots Republicans developed the habit of donating to specific candidates instead of national committees, bypassing the RNC and other national committees altogether. Oh, and you won your election with a bare majority among a deeply divided membership that started rumbling about replacing your predecessor just a few months into his term.

Congratulations, Reince Priebus!

In the second debate, Saul Anuzis characterized the RNC’s circumstances as “a moment of crisis.” The coming days will probably see a media blitz for the new chairman, but one that will probably not be repeated in the next two years. Almost immediately, Priebus will have to go into fundraising mode; he predicted this at the debate at the National Press Club, declaring that the next chairman would have to spend “five, six hours a day calling major donors, working like a dog.”

As chairman, Priebus will face two challenges: skeptical large donors and a distrustful grassroots.

The large donors will need assurances that their donations will be well spent. Holding the meeting at the luxurious Gaylord Convention Center in National Harbor, Md., with a spectacular view of the Potomac, may not have necessarily sent the right message. As committee members considered the budget for the coming year, Delaware RNC committeewoman Priscilla Rakestraw insisted, “We have eliminated, eliminated, eliminated. . . . This is a floor budget, not a ceiling budget.” The RNC staff had been cut from 165 people to 107. But RNC members from North Carolina and Texas still objected, arguing that the RNC cannot credibly lead if it is operating at a deficit.

Meanwhile, many members of the conservative grassroots have become skeptical of Washington committees, suspecting that GOP leaders inside the Beltway don’t truly share their values, are all too comfortable with business as usual, look down upon the Tea Parties, and meddle in primaries despite claims of neutrality. Priebus often cited the Tea Parties when discussing what he wanted to do as chairman, and his constant invocation of them might help him rebuild the RNC’s credibility with grassroots activists. And he’ll probably keep pointing to his Wisconsin friends; Sen. Ron Johnson and Reps. Paul Ryan and Sean Duffy are good names to drop when establishing small-government street cred.