The man who saved the Republican Party

He turned a broken, indebted party into a political juggernaut for the history books.

You may never have heard of him, but he is one of the most powerful and persistent political figures in America. Under his visionary leadership, a Republican Party devoid of direction and saddled with debt climbed out of the gutter of the 2008 presidential election and transformed into a formidable political force for the modern age which managed to parlay even its most shocking defeats into opportunities for future victories.

A candid, unassuming figure, Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus began his career with the Republican Party in Wisconsin, the state where he spent much of his youth and virtually all of his adult life. In 2007, after years of involvement with the G.O.P. both as a volunteer and as a candidate for political office, he became the youngest person ever elected to the chairmanship of the Wisconsin Republican Party. After the election of Democratic president Barack Obama in 2008, Mr. Priebus harnessed the power of Wisconsin’s nascent Tea Party movement to propel Republican Scott Walker to the governor’s office, helping shape a national narrative on fiscal prudence which would eventually hand Republicans control of the U.S. Congress.

But with its laundry list of successes, Mr. Priebus’s energetic state party bore little resemblance to the Republican National Committee. Despite a historic showing in the 2010 midterm elections, where the G.O.P. engineered the largest power shift in the U.S. House of Representatives since 1948, the national party was devastated. Michael Steele, who chaired the R.N.C. during the first two years of the Obama presidency, was a poor steward of the party’s finances, neglecting donor relationships and racking up massive debts to fund a $198 million spending blitz.

In the meantime, several highly-visible scandals struck the R.N.C., diminishing trust in the party’s ability to put its formidable resources to good use. In particular, Mr. Steele’s ham-handed treatment of a 2010 incident in which party staffers used thousands of committee dollars at a West Hollywood strip club highlighted the poor stewardship of donor funds by national party officials during his tenure.

But in December of that same year, Reince Priebus threw his hat into the ring for the R.N.C. chairmanship. In his message to the members of the national committee, he pledged to return efficiency, seriousness, and responsibility to the committee’s work. “I will keep expenses low,” he promised. “We will work to regain the confidence of our donor base and I will personally call our major donors to ask them to rejoin our efforts at the R.N.C.”

After seven ballots, he was elected chairman, beginning what looked to be a slow and steady effort to fix what was broken in the Republican Party. Yet after only a year of Mr. Priebus’s leadership, the R.N.C.’s balance sheet was unrecognizable. After shedding $23 million in Mr. Steele’s final year as chairman, the party of Priebus was now $7 million in the black.

“Most people thought it wasn’t practical to think they’d [erase that debt] in two years,” observed Henry Barbour, a national committee member from Mississippi. “And he [Priebus] wiped it out in one.”

However, it was not long before Mr. Priebus faced a new challenge. Despite a vigorous effort to prosecute the case against President Obama during his 2012 bid for reelection, the Republicans failed to capture the White House. In the aftermath of this shocking defeat, Mr. Priebus ordered a comprehensive review of the party’s operations and voter outreach efforts to find out what went wrong and how to fix it. Drawing heavily from the results of the chairman’s review, the party has expanded its digital and research capabilities and has spent millions to reach out to minority voters, moves which will likely bear fruit this November. In the 2014 midterm elections, the Priebus plan helped produce the largest nationwide Republican majority in almost a century.

If Donald Trump loses this November, it will be in spite of—not because of—the work of Reince Priebus to rebuild the Republican Party after years of poor leadership and a stinging loss in the 2012 presidential election. Testifying to this are a significant majority of the R.N.C.’s members, who are prepared to support Mr. Priebus if he decides to seek an unprecedented fourth term as the party’s chairman. As Politico reported, for many committee members, even a Trump loss in November would not null Mr. Priebus’s exemplary work—which deserves much of the credit for resurrecting the Republican Party in the face of tremendous odds.

“He’s been one of the two best chairmen of my lifetime,” remarked one committeeman. “I am enthusiastically encouraging Reince Priebus to run again as chairman.”


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