Reince Priebus, the chairman of the Republican National Committee, spoke to NRO yesterday morning about the committee’s new Growth and Opportunity Project, which is led by a five-member panel that will review the operations and strategies of the RNC and Republican party as a whole. The members of that panel are Sally Bradshaw, a veteran adviser to former Florida governor Jeb Bush; Ari Fleischer, former press secretary for President George W. Bush; and three RNC committee members — Zori Fonalledas of Puerto Rico, Henry Barbour of Mississippi, and Glenn McCall of South Carolina.
Jim Geraghty: Take us through the thinking behind the establishment of this group and what you’re hoping it accomplishes.
Reince Priebus: This is going to be a group that ultimately, when it’s all said and done, is going to be an octopus with a thousand tentacles. There’s not going to be any stone left unturned. There’s not going to be any group or people that we don’t try to reach out to in order to, at the end of the day, develop the best possible two- and four-year plan moving forward. That will incorporate everything. That includes the best of all data, the best of all state-party-operations ideas: GOTV, digital, campaign infrastructure — everything you can put together to be the best possible party. That’s what it’s going to include. We want something that we are going to be able to implement, that the grassroots are going to buy into, and that the donors are ultimately going to want to invest in.
That’s the idea, to create the best infrastructure, the best party operation possible. That means political people, non-political people, Republicans, libertarians, the Tea Party, and everyone in between, they’re all at the table. Hispanics, African Americans, Asian Americans, everyone. That’s the idea, we want to be the best.
Geraghty: How did you select the membership?
Priebus: We’re just getting started. The one thing out of the box I want to make really clear is that right now we have five co-chairs, but we have eight general areas that we’re going to be diving into and that will include hundreds of people. The task force ultimately is going to be built out with lots of folks who are experts in different areas who will be coming into not just the RNC but also into regional meetings across the country. We’ll be talking to grassroots, talking to donors, leaders in different fields. This is just the beginning. I’d say, Hold on to your hat, because you’re going to see a lot of things happening around this particular project.
Geraghty: A month later, do you look back on the RNC’s operations this past cycle and see anything you would have wanted to do differently?
Priebus: This is what I generally think about not just the RNC but also the campaign in general, the Romney campaign: I think in the year and a half that we had, I think we did a great job. Unfortunately, I think the other side did a great job for four years. I think that’s really what we’re coming down to.
Ultimately where this is going to lead is that we have to have a massive operation that is very granular, that is in communities across America for a very long time — three years, three and a half years, four years. It has to be around the clock. That’s the ultimate conclusion.
As far as what went wrong, my general answer is “all of the above.” You can look at all kinds of things: messengers, message, mechanics, data, demographic groups, Hispanics, African Americans, Asians.
All of those things need to be looked at, all of that can be improved. But what we’re going to see is that they have to be improved over a long period of time. This idea that we tear down every three years and build up for a one-year monster campaign — I just don’t see that being the future. I think the future is a much broader operation for a long period of time.
Geraghty: One of the intriguing points I saw raised in the discussions that this group has had is the recommendation of changes to the presidential-primary schedule. Are you hoping to see changes in how the primaries are set up?
Priebus: One of the major topics that people discuss is the debate issue — controlling the debates and tying the nomination process to the debate calendar is something we’re going to look at. Now, we didn’t have that opportunity two years ago; there is no mechanism to tie the nomination process to the debate calendar. But we have that opportunity now. We can do that with a three-quarters vote of the Republican National Committee. Here’s a hypothetical. The RNC could hypothetically say, “Look, here’s the debate calendar. Here are the moderators. We’re going to have one debate a month starting on this day.” And adherence to the calendar will be a requirement to achieving the nomination to the presidency — either through bonus delegates or penalties of delegates subtracted. There is one major reason that a presidential candidate needs the Republican party: To get on the ballot in November, a presidential candidate must get a majority of delegates at a national convention to vote for him or her. If the presidential candidate can’t make that happen, he or she is not on the ballot. So that is one idea that we will be looking at.
If you have ten presidential candidates, and seven out of ten or eight out of ten will take whatever two-hour slot that is open to them, then you end up with a debate any time some cable network decides to hold one. You can’t control that situation. Our endeavor is to come up with some idea that helps us control that situation.
Geraghty: Obviously the answer to this question is somewhere between “none” and “all,” but how much of the blame for the disappointment of 2012 should fall on the RNC?
Priebus: I think if you looked at where we started . . . We started from a standing start, basically, or even worse. We couldn’t make payroll, we were $25 million in debt. One story I haven’t told too much is that when we got here, both of the committee’s credit cards were suspended when we walked in the door. We began paying for [staff] flights and expenses on my credit card.
When you look at where we were and where we’ve come to, I think the RNC has done a good job. But I don’t believe that what we’ve done will be good enough four years from now. I think you can have it both ways — we did a good job with the time we had, but it’s clearly not going to be good enough in four years.
As for the overall question, I think it’s a team. When you say the Republican party, I consider that to be our friends, the candidates, everyone in between — and it just wasn’t good enough. Our job is to figure out what we can do as a team, all of us together, what can we all do better together so that we can have a decisive victory in 2016. That’s something that hasn’t happened since 1988. We can’t just wait for these Tuesday nights every four years where, if one out of eight states doesn’t go well for us, we’re done. We have to figure out what we have to do to give ourselves more opportunities.
Geraghty: You’ve indicated you want another term as chairman, and indicated that you have locked up a sizable majority of RNC members. Is that still the case? Have you run into many critics or RNC members who argue that, because 2012 was disappointing, you have to be replaced?
Priebus: I haven’t run into those people. For the most part, it’s been disappointing to lose, no question about it. I don’t like it. But the response to the job we’ve done has been very good. The committee members support what we did. They know we have a ton of work to do going forward, and they think I’m well suited to spearhead that effort. The measure of success is going to be in how we implement these efforts and in our making sure that we put a program on the ground that does the job a thousand times better than anything we’ve done before.
The job of the party chairman is to lead. We can sit around and point fingers at ourselves and others. Tough beans. Just accept responsibility, come up with a plan to charge the hill, a plan that’s going to motivate our party and get the grassroots engaged and our donors engaged. That’s my job, and that’s the job that I’m excited to take on for the next couple of years.
Geraghty: What’s on the RNC’s agenda in the coming year?
Priebus: Clearly, we want to keep our governors. [Virginia attorney general and expected GOP gubernatorial nominee] Ken Cuccinelli is now unopposed, and we want to make sure that goes well for us, and obviously Chris Christie is a top priority as well. We have two big races, and we want to win both of those.
The panel and what we’re doing in this study is going to give us an opportunity to implement those ideas in those two races. We can do some testing in technology, outreach efforts. We can start implementing those ideas and use them as incubators for what we’re doing with some new technology. We want to win both of those races and use them as a testing ground moving forward.
Geraghty: What do you think of Jim DeMint leaving the Senate to go to the Heritage Foundation?
Priebus: I might see him today, at lunch, and I’ll have a chance to talk to him. I’m sure it’s going to be a real blessing to him and the Heritage Foundation. He’s incredibly talented, really smart, and I think he’s going to be able to continue this movement forward.
We need big voices in places that help shape message, policies, research. I have a ton of respect for the Heritage Foundation, and so I can’t see a downside for them having a guy like Jim in charge of it.
— Jim Geraghty writes the Campaign Spot on NRO.