Priebus Treads Carefully on Primary Reform

by Robert Costa

Reince Priebus, the chairman of the Republican National Committee, acknowledges that reforming the GOP’s presidential primary is one of his top priorities. But he doesn’t want to be heavy-handed about it, he says, in a briefing at National Review’s Washington, D.C., office. “Making those decisions and amending the calendar is a decision the entire RNC has to make,” he says. “That takes 75 percent of the voting body.”

Next month, RNC members will meet in Los Angeles to go over what Priebus and other party officials included in the GOP’s postelection report, which was published earlier this week. Priebus jokes that Republicans have been tinkering with the primary process “since Bill Brock was chairman” in the late 1970s, but he thinks the party is quite open to his recommendations, especially the push to move up the national convention from the late summer to the late spring. “You can’t have a candidate coming out of a primary being a sitting duck, unable to spend general-election money for three months,” he explains.

Moving up the convention would also shorten the primary, and Priebus is sensitive to how such a maneuver would be interpreted by the GOP’s rank-and-file voters. “So, how do you conduct a primary in an orderly fashion that doesn’t result in a national primary?” he asks rhetorically. “If you believe that you don’t want a national primary, which I think most people in our party don’t want to have, you have to come up with a system that’s orderly, that allows candidates to be heard and to debate, and also gets done in a primary calendar that we can all agree is going to be compressed.”

“I’m going to work with the members of the committee to see what we can all agree to,” he continues. “I think there would be consensus on ending earlier and moving the primary earlier. Where it gets tricky is deciding the order of the states. Because then you’ve got to work with state legislatures, with state parties, and you need some level of cooperation across the board.”

Another part of the RNC report urges the party to move toward more primaries, instead of caucuses, as a means of nominating delegates for the national convention. Advisers of politicians with large grassroots followings are already skeptical of the idea, since they believe such a system would limit their ability to win delegates. “I know how complicated it is, to try and get 75 percent of the RNC to agree on these kinds of rule changes and I think if you try to take it too far you’re ultimately going to be doomed,” Priebus says. “I think the most important thing is that if you have a caucus or a convention is that you bind your delegates in that statewide caucus or convention.” 

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