Priebus Presses Republican Rebrand Amid Tea Party Angst

When Reince Priebus was first elected chairman of the Republican National Committee two years ago, he inherited a party plagued by debt and internal squabbles. His party is no longer in debt, although its future is less certain and it’s filled with even more angst.

Priebus, 40, who is slated to be re-elected to a second two-year term this week at a RNC meeting in Charlotte, North Carolina, will need to confront those challenges after a 2012 election in which Republicans failed to defeat President Barack Obama and lost House and Senate seats.

“It’s a pretty unenviable job that he’s going to have,” said Gentry Collins, a Republican strategist in Washington who is a former RNC political director. “He’s facing a party that clearly has to reinvent the way it approaches campaigns.”

He must do that while navigating around Tea Party movement leaders who have threatened retribution for Republican congressional support of a tax increase passed this month, an intra-party geographic divide made wider by the 2012 elections and demoralized activists who thought they would beat Obama because of high unemployment.

With only a third of Americans viewing the party favorably, Republicans risk further electoral losses if they fail to broaden their appeal among Hispanics, a rapidly growing portion of the electorate, and younger voters, who represent the next generation of voters. To regain parity, they’ll also need to match Democratic superiority when it comes to using technology to reaching out to voters and getting them to the polls.

Digging Out

In an interview, Priebus said his biggest accomplishment during his first term was ridding the RNC of roughly $20 million in debt. He also said the national party shouldn’t be blamed for November’s losses.

“People believe that in the 18 months we had to resurrect a disaster here, we did a pretty good job,” he said. “That doesn’t mean that four years from now people aren’t going to expect a much better operation between the party and the nominee.”

In an e-mail to supporters after the election, Priebus made clear that he has more support than needed to keep his job, backed by at least 130 of 168 committee members, far more than the simple majority required.

Mark Willis, an RNC member from Maine, is expected to challenge Priebus. Willis lost his slot as a delegate at the Republican National Convention in August because of his outspoken support for presidential primary candidate Ron Paul over Republican nominee Mitt Romney. There are also questions about whether Willis can run for chairman because failure to support the party’s presidential nominee is grounds for removal from the committee under RNC rules.

Fundraising Success

Priebus’ popularity among committee members can partly be attributed to his success in restoring the party’s financial strength. The RNC raised almost $300 million during 2012 and ended the year with about $3 million in the bank, according to Federal Election Commission records. The annual total was boosted by Romney’s aggressive fundraising efforts.

When Priebus took over the RNC in January 2011, he said he had to use his personal credit cards for travel and expenses because the committee’s two cards had been suspended for lack of payment. At times, he said, upwards of $25,000 was charged on his cards.

“We’d charge it up and pay it off and charge it up and pay it off,” he said.

Steele’s Gaffes

To win the chairmanship, Priebus defeated then-chairman Michael Steele, who had become caught up in controversies about how he managed the party. During his tenure, Steele often was in the spotlight for verbal gaffes and statements that were controversial within the party.

In February 2009, Steele said he opposed a constitutional ban on abortion, before later issuing a statement to try to show his allegiance with anti-abortion rights party activists who were angered.

Steele faced more criticism after financial reports showed that in February 2010, the party paid almost $2,000 for meals at a bondage-themed nightclub in West Hollywood, California, that featured topless dancers.

RNC member Henry Barbour of Mississippi, who backed Priebus over Steele, said the new chairman has reformed the party’s internal workings.

‘Brought Stability’

“He brought stability, maturity, raised the money and controlled costs and stayed within himself as a messenger,” he said. “RNC members have a real appreciation for the job he’s done, despite the Republican loss at the top of the ticket.”

Mike Kopp, an RNC member from Colorado, put it this way: “It’s like a football coach that lost in the first game of the playoffs. He has had significant success to build on.”

Priebus will also have to address the demographic and technological shortfalls with Democrats that were spotlighted in November’s election.

Exit polls of voters in the Nov. 6 election showed Obama dominated Romney among single women, Hispanics, blacks and younger voters as the president carried eight of nine states both camps viewed as the most competitive.

Republicans have also acknowledged Obama’s campaign used superior technological tools for online fundraising and get-out-the-vote efforts.

“While we were debating each other in primaries and digging out of debt, you had Barack Obama, who is spending $100 million on data and technology,” Priebus said. “We did a pretty good job running a nine-month campaign. And Barack Obama did a pretty good job running a four-year campaign.”

Study Group

Republicans have initiated a study of how the party can improve its image and performance. The Growth and Opportunity Project will focus on messaging, fundraising, demographic outreach, the primary process and the role of third parties.

Priebus appointed five party leaders to head the group, including Barbour, who is the nephew of former RNC Chairman Haley Barbour, and Ari Fleischer, White House press secretary under President George W. Bush. Rounding out the group is Zori Fonalledas of Puerto Rico and Glenn McCall of South Carolina -- both RNC members -- and political strategist Sally Bradshaw, a longtime consultant to former Florida Governor Jeb Bush.

As he awaits the group’s findings -- perhaps as soon as March -- Priebus said he expects the party will have to raise and spend more money in non-election years.

Changing Mindset

“It means changing the mindset of both our grassroots and our donors in that the opportunities to give are not in presidential years,” he said. “We’re going to have to sell that concept across the country, that if you want to have a party that can go toe-to-toe with an incumbent president, you’re going to have a party that is granular and funded with a lot of people on the ground all the time and that’s expensive.”

Those extra resources would be used to register new voters and woo independent ones, plus look for ways reach out to Hispanics, youth, women and others “on a year-around basis that brings our party to the community level,” Priebus said.

He’d also like to see fewer candidate debates than the more than 20 held in 2011 and 2012 during the Republican primary.

“We ought to control who the moderators are and what companies are running the debates,” he said.

Priebus, a former Wisconsin party chairman who is close to Governor Scott Walker there, dismissed suggestions that the party is lacking high-profile leaders.

“If you look at the Republican bench right now, at governors and leaders here in Washington and across America, our future is enormously bright. And we just have to do a better job talking about it, bragging about it and messaging through these leaders for the next couple years,” he said.

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