Politics & Policy

Hail to the Chair

Reince Priebus has his work cut out for him.

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.

Besides telling donors that he can replicate his Wisconsin success, Preibus will argue that the mistakes of the past are just that: in the past. Despite his work as counsel for the RNC during Steele’s term, he is a fresh face, figuratively as well as literally. Not only do many Washington Republicans and grassroots conservatives not know him, they don’t know how to pronounce or spell his name. (It’s pronounced “Rynce PREE-bus.”)

Before the vote, one Anuzis backer figured Priebus’s youthful looks and energy would work against him: “You can’t look like that, sound like that, and have a name like that and be the guy who rescues a much-mocked organization,” he chuckled. But the RNC members apparently saw it differently.

Still, a primary problem facing the RNC is that, among the national party committees, it is the jack of all trades and master of none. While it can play a role in presidential, gubernatorial, senatorial, and House races, it has primary responsibility for none of them, and thus it has a harder time saying, “If you support us, we can help this particular Republican win this particular race.” If the recent cycles have indicated anything, it is that Republican donors are excited by particular candidates — Marco Rubio, Pat Toomey, Sharron Angle, Scott Brown. A key factor in whether Priebus can overcome the RNC’s budgetary and trust issues will be whether he can craft a distinct and compelling role for the committee in the hearts of Republicans determined to make Obama a one-term president.

For much of Friday, it appeared the voting would go on well into the evening. In the initial ballots, not many votes separated the leading candidates from the rest of the pack. On the first ballot, frontrunner Priebus’s 45 votes put him only 22 ahead of last-place finisher Saul Anuzis; in the second ballot, Priebus’s 52 was only 30 ahead of Anuzis’s 22. By the third ballot, Priebus was at 54, Anuzis hanging around at 21. By contrast, two years earlier, Ken Blackwell finished with only 15 votes in the third round and withdrew after the next ballot, throwing his support to Steele. In the first three rounds of voting, no candidate gained or lost more than eight votes.

This year, the fourth ballot brought Steele to admit that the day was not going his way. “I just wanted to say, two years, we had a good time,” he said with his characteristic smile. “We’ve done a lot of good things, we’ve worked hard to build the party. But it’s very clear the party wants to do something different, and hopefully a little better. And I appreciate all the hard work that all of you brought to the table. I said that earlier this morning. Meant it from the heart. This is tough because it . . . ” he paused. “It is what it is.”

Steele publicly threw his support to Maria Cino, but his backers split: Cino gained eleven votes, nine went to Priebus and eight went to Anuzis. These next two rounds proved decisive, as Priebus jumped to 67, with a 27-point margin over the next-closest competitor, Cino. On the sixth ballot, supporters of last-place Ann Wagner began to slip away. Priebus jumped to 80, and the next-closet competitor was Anuzis, way behind at 37. At that point, the mood in the room changed. Wagner withdrew without endorsing any candidate, freeing up 17 members. Republican strategist Mike Murphy observed that once Priebus’s victory was perceived as inevitable, at least 50 RNC members wanted to be “the one who put him over the top.”

On the next ballot, he won 97 votes. And now the job and the enormous, pressing problems that come with it are his.

— Jim Geraghty writes the Campaign Spot on NRO.


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