At the end of 2010, as Michael Steele’s tenure as chairman was drawing to a close, the Republican National Committee’s prospects looked bleak. The organization was $23 million in debt, despite the enthusiasm and grassroots energy that had propelled the GOP to historic electoral gains.
But in the past year and a half, with the RNC under the leadership of Reince Preibus, the fundraising dynamic has completely changed. In May, for instance, the RNC raised $34 million, $14 million more than the DNC raised in the same period. And the RNC had $61 million in cash on hand to the DNC’s $31 million.
“It’s a matter of rebuilding trust and credibility at the committee,” says Priebus. “And I would say that any time that you need to do that, that’s a pretty tough place to be. That’s where we were.”
“I think at this point people understand that every dime and every penny at the RNC is important,” Priebus continues, “that our spending is down, that our net take is high, and that our money is being used for the things that I think the RNC is great at, which is funding and orchestrating the ground game, putting an army on the ground to make sure that we’re getting more ballots in the box than our opponents.”
Of course, it is easier to raise money now than it was in 2010, thanks to the excitement over the presidential election. Still, Priebus’s efforts have significantly boosted the haul.
“A key factor has been the confidence that donors have in the job that Reince is doing,” says a senior Hill Republican who has worked with both Priebus and Steele. “And they have that because he hasn’t been a controversial figure, and they have that because, for so many of them, he’s reached out to them personally. The amount of time that he has spent personally calling donors, personally going to fundraisers, and working to make those events a success and the day-to-day fundraising a success really can’t be discounted.”
“The non-glamorous and hard and necessary work of being a chairman is sitting on your rear end and making fundraising calls, and that’s what he does every day,” adds the source.
Another factor that’s helping is the trait that the RNC possesses that other groups don’t: the ability to legally coordinate with the Romney campaign. “RNC money is more valuable than any other money besides candidate money, and the reason is that under the law, the RNC and the DNC are the only two entities that can raise money at $30,800 apiece and legally coordinate that money with the $2,500 that a presidential candidate can raise,” Priebus explains.
The RNC views the ground game as the most important expenditure going forward. “I believe that we need to crush the Democrats on the ground in every single neighborhood that we can in every battleground state in America,” says Priebus, adding that the RNC is particularly focusing on absentee-ballot voters.
“Voter-to-voter contacts is something that I believe in, it’s my focus, and that means having a bigger, better, stronger army on the ground. That’s what wins, and that’s what we’re committed to,” Priebus explains. And while the Democrats have talked a big game about their grassroots organization in 2012, Priebus sees the Wisconsin recall election as a signal that they’ve got stiff competition from the GOP. “They bragged about making 800,000 calls,” he comments. “We made almost 4.5 million voter contacts in Wisconsin. We’re going to do in the rest of the country what we did in Wisconsin.”
Ed Gillespie, a former RNC chairman, notes the importance of Priebus’s background. “He’s restored the RNC’s traditional role as the backbone of the Republican party’s grassroots organizational strength,” Gillespie says. “He’s working to strengthen the state parties, enlisting volunteers and grassroots activists. It helps that he comes from the grassroots, as a former successful state party chair. They also put out excellent messaging documents and videos that help rank-and-file Republicans know what to say to their friends and neighbors and coworkers when it comes to hot topics.”
On the spending side, too, things have improved. Thanks to better budgeting, in 2011 the RNC spent only 68 percent of what it did in 2009, the most recent non-election year prior.
Will all this be enough for the RNC and the Romney team to outraise the DNC and Obama? Priebus can’t say for sure.“Outraising the fundraiser-in-chief is going to be very, very difficult,” he comments. “So beating him, I can’t tell you that’s going to happen.”
Still, he says Republicans shouldn’t be concerned that there will be a huge funding gap between their party and the Democrats — which looked like a real threat at the end of 2010.
“What I can tell you is that we’re not going to lose because we don’t have enough money,” Priebus says. “That’s not going to happen.”
— Katrina Trinko is an NRO reporter.