Politics & Policy

Is Reince Priebus’s GOP Ready for Battle?

Priebus at the RNC winter meeting in January 2014. (Win McNamee/Getty)
From the November 2, 2015, issue of NR

On a sunny Friday morning in January 2015, Reince Priebus stood inside the main ballroom of an elegant Southern California resort wearing a conqueror’s smile. The 42-year-old Wisconsinite, a placid-looking lawyer, had earlier that morning been elected to a historic third term as chairman of the Republican National Committee. It was a formality; the GOP’s governing body, composed of a committeeman, a committeewoman, and a chairperson from each of the 50 states and six territories, was firmly under Priebus’s command. The vote had been nearly unanimous — 166 to 2 — and when the tally was read, Priebus received an extended standing ovation inside the Hotel del Coronado.

Yet at this moment, he was reveling in a wholly different accomplishment.

As Priebus looked on, RNC members were being briefed on a series of recently approved reforms to the Republican party’s 2016 presidential-nominating process. These changes – compressing the election calendar, passing rules to prevent unauthorized states from scheduling their primaries too early in the year, moving the convention up to mid July from late August, cutting the number of debates in half and making sure conservative media would participate in them — had all been spearheaded by Priebus in service of an overarching objective: an orderly primary season that would produce a nominee as quickly as possible, with minimal damage from intraparty antagonism.

Priebus was no stranger to shaking things up. In his first four years as chairman, the RNC had pursued sweeping changes inside the party apparatus. He began in 2011 by cleaning up the GOP’s books, erasing some $24 million in debt by Election Day 2012. He made major investments in technology and data analytics that have now, finally, introduced some degree of parity with the Democratic ground-game juggernaut. And, following Mitt Romney’s 2012 defeat, Priebus appointed five veteran Republican officials to write a self-critical report charting a path forward for the party — particularly on the matter of attracting minority voters.

Now, on the heels of a GOP triumph in the 2014 midterm elections, Priebus saw streamlining his party’s nominating process as the final step to restoring its national viability. His success in shepherding these reforms has been a political revelation; in an age of super-PAC bonanzas and unlimited soft money, Priebus is sure — and has assured others — that no outside entity can fill the role of a national party machine, and that only by strengthening the machine can Republicans hope to win the White House.

“The difference between the party I walked into and the party we have today is that we’re ready for a national election,” Priebus says in the course of a lengthy interview. “We live in a candidate-crazy party to the detriment of the mechanics. And our biggest accomplishment has been convincing people in our party that the mechanics in a presidential election are just as important as having a great candidate.”

“If the RNC of 2012 was in the kind of shape the RNC is in today,” says Ron Kaufman, the committeeman from Massachusetts, “Mitt Romney would be president of the United States.”

In 2012, Republicans had ineffective data systems, meager statewide organizations, no prescription for attracting ascendant demographic groups, and a nominee who limped into the general election after being bludgeoned in a marathon primary contest that included 20 debates and competitive elections from early January to mid April. Four years later, the party will have state-of-the-art technology, full-time field operations in every battleground state, an outreach blueprint that might yet be enhanced by a bilingual nominee, and a primary season that will start in February and end — theoretically — in late March. This was the master plan, drawn up and executed to near perfection, that had Priebus beaming that January morning.

And then 17 candidates, including Donald J. Trump, entered the race.

The result, thus far, has been a primary season featuring the sort of self-inflicted wounds that Priebus hoped a truncated schedule would enable the party to avoid. Trump declared his candidacy by offering sound bites about Mexican “rapists” and then proposed scrapping birthright citizenship. Jeb Bush, once resolute not to be yanked rightward à la Romney, clumsily used the phrase “anchor babies” when reacting to Trump and later gave an equally ham-fisted assessment of women’s-health funding. Ben Carson seemed to suggest that a Muslim shouldn’t be president. All of this four months before a single vote was cast.

Amid the predictable Republican hand-wringing, some are now second-guessing Priebus’s reforms, wondering whether an enormous field competing in a condensed primary calendar might protract the race. Others have suggested that the RNC should be more assertive in denouncing Trump or any other candidate who harms the GOP brand. But by and large, Republicans praise Priebus, saying that he’s done his job — putting the party in a position to win — and the rest is up to the voters and the eventual nominee. “I think Reince is handling this well. There’s no crisis here,” says Stuart Stevens, Romney’s 2012 campaign manager. “It’s a big, chaotic country. Getting elected president is a big, chaotic process. This isn’t a wedding we’re putting on. It’s an election.”

The questions now are: Will the candidates avoid giving one another lasting scars? Will they gracefully exit upon realizing the improbability of their winning the prize? Will voters resist fracturing the party and instead rally behind a nominee regardless of his or her ideological warts? And will that nominee be someone with broad appeal, someone with the capacity to fully deploy the operation Priebus has prepared?

These questions are out of the chairman’s hands. And yet the answers will determine not only his party’s fortunes but his legacy as its leader.

The job nearly wasn’t his. Deep reservations clouded Priebus’s candidacy as committee members gathered at a Washington-area hotel in January 2011 to elect a chairman. On one hand, party officials admired his accomplishments as head of the Wisconsin GOP, which had taken back the governor’s mansion and regained Russ Feingold’s Senate seat. But Priebus had also until recently served as general counsel for the unpopular incumbent RNC chairman, Michael Steele. A group of veteran members plotting to oust Steele had recruited Priebus, a fundraising whiz with an agreeable personality, to challenge him. But plenty of their colleagues were skeptical about replacing the embattled chairman with his onetime right-hand man.

In 2012, Republicans had ineffective data systems, meager statewide organizations, no prescription for attracting ascendant demographic groups, and a nominee who limped into the general election.

“As the campaign wore on, it was clear that Reince’s key weakness was his closeness to Steele. But we knew that while Reince was loyal to the chairman who appointed him, he also fought with him constantly,” recalls Kaufman, who was elected to the RNC in 1988. “People liked that he was an inside critic of what was going on there. And he didn’t grandstand about it.”

It took seven rounds of balloting — after the fourth of which Steele dropped out — for Priebus, then only 38, to take the helm of the Republican party. His first order of business after his acceptance speech: grabbing a beer in the hotel lobby with Saul Anuzis, the longtime RNC member from Michigan who finished as runner-up to Priebus. It wasn’t surprising, Anuzis recalls, because “during the last couple months of the campaign, Reince and I spoke almost every day,” comparing notes about their platforms and talking strategy. Running to lead an organization rife with factions and infighting, Priebus had gone out of his way to communicate breezily with all of his opponents throughout the campaign. It was a preview of his management style.

“Being the party guy he is, he knows the importance of keeping the 168 [RNC members] happy at all cost,” says Steele, whose friendship with Priebus was ruined by his former lieutenant’s perceived betrayal. “He has really great relationships with the members. I thought I had good relationships with the members, but not all of them embraced me.”

“Steele was a bull in a china shop. Reince is less confrontational and more of a consensus-builder,” says Anuzis. “There was clearly a lot of internal strife within the committee. Everyone knew Michael Steele created a lot of enemies inside Washington, and that made it difficult for him to function. Reince had a unique perspective on that and learned from it.” He continues: “Reince immediately reached out to a lot of people and asked them to participate in any way they could. He was very inclusive, and that was part of his early success. It earned him a lot of good will.”

What endeared Priebus all the more to the members was his ability, demonstrated immediately upon taking the reins, to manage the RNC’s finances. Having campaigned on his strong relationships with donors, Priebus wasted no time in digging the party out of its financial hole. He was known to spend six hours a day soliciting donations on the telephone and would open a Miller Lite from his office refrigerator when the calls ran late into the evening. His work paid off: Left with less than $800,000 in cash on hand when he took over, Priebus’s RNC raised north of $400 million for the 2012 election — besting the DNC by more than $90 million — and ended the cycle with $6 million in the bank.

Romney lost the election, of course. But the party chairman was nobody’s scapegoat. In fact, Priebus’s performance — raising eye-popping sums of money, erasing the debt, introducing a bottom-up management style — afforded him latitude to further remake the committee. Priebus seized the opportunity, immediately commissioning that high-profile “autopsy” report to determine what had gone wrong in 2012 and how to fix it. The chairman recognized that the states had been organizationally starved, and he embraced the onerous task of erecting full-time GOP field staffs across the nation. He also began dumping tens of millions of dollars into data processing and technology development.

But the biggest changes were yet to come. Girding for a good old-fashioned internecine rumble, Priebus began going from member to member, making the case that in order to achieve competitive balance with the Democrats, Republicans had to fundamentally alter the way they chose their nominee.

“We had a 23-debate traveling circus while Barack Obama built a $100 million data system with hard money in Chicago,” Priebus says. “Our party, I think, was a little too fascinated with candidates and a little too fascinated with soft money, and it’s taken our eye off what it takes to win a presidential election.”

Debates would become the first victim of Priebus’s overhaul. Having watched Romney get elbowed uncomfortably toward the right throughout a seemingly endless string of appearances — including one back-to-back affair, with candidates on stage Saturday night and then again Sunday morning — the chairman was hell-bent on “taking back control of the debate process,” says Steve Duprey, the New Hampshire committeeman who chairs the RNC’s debate panel.

The mission, as defined by Priebus and Duprey’s committee, was threefold: reducing the number of debates, spreading them around the country to reach battleground states, and introducing a conservative-media element to counterbalance what many party officials saw as biased moderating in 2012. The party also instituted a strict new policy under which any candidate who participated in an “unsanctioned” debate — i.e., one not organized by the RNC — would be banned from all party-approved debates.

The RNC settled on nine debates from August to February, reserving the possibility of up to three additional debates in March, depending on the state of the race. It planted one each in the early states (Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, Nevada) while also including swing states with diverse demographics (Ohio, Colorado, Florida, Wisconsin). Each of the debates would include some conservative questioning, either from outside panelists (such as radio host Hugh Hewitt) or, in the case of Fox News, from the trusted anchors themselves. And, despite some early threats, no candidate violated the sanctioning rule — mostly because Priebus made a late, quiet push for the networks to include “undercard” events at the first two debates, removing any temptation for the excluded candidates to meet elsewhere.

Of course, Priebus made enemies in the process. Second-tier campaigns flooded the chairman and his committee members with complaints, suggesting that the system was being rigged to insulate “electable” candidates from insurgent challengers. And Republican leaders in the early states, long accustomed to raising big money as they hosted multiple debates in each primary cycle, griped about forfeiting a revenue stream.

“The debates are hugely profitable for the state parties. But cutting them down was for the greater good of the national party,” says South Carolina GOP chairman Matt Moore. “Reince made sure everyone understood that.” Moore recalls Priebus phoning him several years ago after he was elected state chairman and advising him to boldly pursue any reforms that would help the party: “Don‘t be afraid to kill some sacred cows.”

Priebus, meanwhile, had another cow in his crosshairs. Convinced that the primary calendar in 2012 had gotten too drawn out, the chairman would compress the primary-election schedule to limit the infighting and select a nominee as quickly as possible. That meant starting the contests in February instead of January, moving the convention up to mid July from late August, and changing the delegate-allocation rules to let winner-take-all elections begin earlier in 2016 than they had in 2012.

After consecutive presidential-election cycles that had seen the RNC warring with state parties over primary dates — prompting the national committee in 2008 and 2012 to reduce the offending states’ allocation of delegates to the national conventions — Priebus set out to make the sticks harder and the carrots sweeter. The RNC designated February as the month in which the four early-voting “carve-out” states (Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Nevada) would hold their primaries. To deter the other states from jumping ahead and holding primaries in February too, Priebus instituted a harsh penalty: The non-carve-outs would see their national-convention delegations slashed to single digits if they held a contest before March 1. But he also provided an incentive: The states could hold a winner-take-all primary in mid March, when the nomination might still hang in the balance, whereas in previous cycles, those delegate-rich contests could be held only in April or later, by which point a de facto nominee had already emerged in every cycle since the 1970s.

On paper, this calendar seemed likely to achieve the aim of a shortened, orderly primary season. Yet it was devised when no one knew that 17 candidates (now down to 15) would be running. And the size of the field now has Republican officials concerned about unintended consequences.

“Compression can work in one of two ways: Either it speeds things up so you get to your nominee faster, or it fractures the race so you never get a nominee,” says Randy Evans, the RNC committeeman from Georgia. “Super Tuesday [on March 1] is supposed to help speed things up after the carve-out states and get us to a nominee. But what if Cruz wins Texas [March 1], and Jindal wins Louisiana [March 5], and then you go to the winner-take-all states [on March 15], and Kasich wins Ohio, and Bush or Rubio wins Florida? Then what?”

Evans, a Priebus ally who sits on the RNC’s debate panel and leads the Republican National Lawyers Association, adds: “If you asked me to bet, I’d say we have a nominee by April 1. But there’s a one-in-three chance that we’ll have five candidates still in the race on April 1, because the compression permits those people to stay in the race longer.”

Priebus, for his part, says he isn’t worried about the primary anymore. Not about Donald Trump. Not about rule changes’ backfiring. And not about the prospect of a brokered convention, even though his colleagues think such a scenario is possible and he admits that the party is preparing for it. (He declined to offer details.) For Priebus, nothing has changed: He told members of his inner circle in January that he expects a nominee to emerge by late March, and despite Trump’s headlining a hectic start to the primary season, he’s sticking to that prediction.

“I think this is going to end up very similar to the past 40 years,” Priebus says. “Most of the time, a nominee is known by April, mid April, I think, at the latest, and it will feel a year from now pretty typical to most people, although we’ll look back at 2015 and say, ‘Wow, that was a crazy time.’” Priebus continues: “My belief is that, by the end of March or early April, we’re going to have a presumptive nominee, and a lot of this is going to be ancient history.”

No, what worries Priebus is the general election. He says there’s “no chance” he will run for a fourth term as RNC chairman; whatever the outcome of the 2016 election — a Republican wins and appoints an ally to run the RNC, which becomes a political arm of the White House, or a Democrat wins and the RNC begins soul-searching anew — it will be time for him to move on. That means next November looms not only as a determinant of the country’s direction but also as a de facto judgment on his legacy as the head of the Republican party.

Next November looms not only as a determinant of the country’s direction but also as a de facto judgment on his legacy as the head of the Republican party.

Priebus has by all accounts poured himself into the position, moving his young family to Washington and working maniacal hours to restore a tattered organization. And, in a rare flash of D.C. consensus, Republicans — even those whose sacred cows he’s slaughtered — agree that he has succeeded in accomplishing everything he set out to do: more money raised, better technology implemented, state parties strengthened, primary process streamlined, and, intangibly but perhaps most importantly, competence and order imposed on the GOP during a post-Bush period of internecine wrangling. Everything Priebus has achieved, his allies note, is all the more impressive because it was done with a Democrat in the White House.

But none of that will matter, or be remembered, if Republicans fail to win the presidency in 2016 — a reality that Priebus admits is beginning to creep into his mind. He feels that he’s done everything in his power to improve the primary system and yield a better nominee. But once that person is designated, Priebus will pass the baton; no longer will he be the leader of the party. He will remain significant as its fundraiser-in-chief, and Priebus says that the Presidential Trust, a pot that the RNC shares with its primary victor, will be fully funded at around $27 million. Beyond that, the fate of the election will be largely out of his hands.

It’s a helpless feeling. “The fact is, nothing about politics is fair,” he says. “You can do all these things. You can change the committee. You can raise record amounts of money. You can modernize the place without having a president in the White House. And then, if you lose, well, you’re the biggest idiot who ever walked into this building.”

—Mr. Alberta is joining National Review as chief political correspondent. This article originally appeared in the November 2, 2015, issue of National Review.

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