When Wisconsin’s Reince Priebus was elected to replace Michael Steele as Republican National Committee chairman in early 2011, the committee was $25 million in debt. The party had, however, just recovered from two disastrous election cycles and won a spectacular series of victories in the 2010 midterms. Some expected Steele to be rewarded for the party’s successes. They were wrong. After seven rounds of voting, Priebus was installed as the new party chair.
His tenure has been mixed. After the GOP suffered unexpected losses in the 2012 elections, Priebus focused on retooling the GOP’s message, its approach to the “rising electorate” of minority voters, technological infrastructure, and application voter data. Those efforts paid off in the 2014 midterms, the second consecutive midterm election cycle in which Republicans benefited from a pro-GOP wave.
At the RNC’s Winter Meeting later this month, Priebus hopes to make history. He will run for a third term as chairman and, if he wins, will become the longest-serving chairman in the committee’s history.
“As some of you may have heard me say, thus far we accomplished about 80 percent of what we needed to accomplish with another 80 percent left to go,” Priebus wrote in a letter to committee members. “If we are going to win in 2016, we must build upon what we were able to accomplish over the last 4 years, and I ask for your continued support to make sure we do in fact accomplish that goal.”
If Priebus does win a third term, it will be due in part to his proficiency as a fundraiser. A recent BuzzFeed profile on Priebus expands on the recent successes the RNC has had in outraising Democrats:
Raising money is the core of Priebus’ job — he spends, he said, between 60% and 65% of his time raising money — and he is exceptionally good at it: He outraised the Democrats in 2012, and raised $188.8 million in the 2014 cycle. And the money he raises is, he said, “the golden money. It’s the type-O blood of politics. Anyone can use it, there’s a limited supply, but it’s the universal blood of politics here at the RNC.”
Because of complex laws around coordination, the resources the Republican National Committee buys can be used and reused, passed around among Republican campaigns. Soft-money groups cannot share and coordinate like this. So instead of going to war with deep-pocketed outsiders like the Koch brothers, Priebus has found a role in their ecosystem. When it comes to data, for instance, the committee has — through an arrangement involving a new private company — essentially made itself the partner of a Koch-backed data company, i360, initially seen as a rival.
Priebus asks only that big donors make that golden money their first contribution, then they’re free to head off to the super PACs. And he has absorbed from his third round of calling donors before a big election that “as chair of the party, for our national party, 2016 is the most important election we’ve had.”
The party chairman is also reforming the presidential nominating process, in as much as he has the power to do so. The party has pushed back the early contests in Iowa and New Hampshire into February, will severely punish states that try to move their contests up, has limited the number of debates in which Republican candidates can participate, and has pushed the nominating convention ahead into July.
2016 will prove a true test for Priebus, however. If the next Democratic nominee succeeds Barack Obama in office and becomes only the second person in America’s post-war history to achieve this feat (following only in George H. W. Bush’s footsteps), the party will be looking to punish someone. Ultimately, the RNC chairman will prove a tempting target.