From Townhall Magazine's August feature, "The Party Man," by Guy Benson:
... As the 2012 contest hurtles toward the two parties’ nominating conventions in the coming weeks, crunch time has officially set in. The RNC war room buzzes 23 hours a day (operatives are given a respite between 3:00 and 4:00 a.m.), and the outfit’s young ground commander maintains a relentless schedule. RNC Chairman Reince Priebus has a unique challenge: surmount the myriad roadblocks he inherited and tackle the seemingly endless to-do list that any election-year chairman would be expected to accomplish. Priebus is taking the double mandate in stride. He doesn’t really have a choice: All the excuses in the world won’t amount to much if President Obama secures a second term.
Reviving a Damaged Brand
It’s been a harrowing road to hoe. Priebus inherited a committee in deep financial and organizational distress. Though he’s uninterested in rehashing the struggles of his predecessor, Michael Steele (“God gave Michael a whole lot of talent,” he says), the bleak picture Priebus inherited on Jan. 15, 2011, speaks for itself. The committee faced debts amounting to roughly $25 million, a figure that ballooned for several months after Priebus arrived as incoming invoices piled up. Steele’s RNC had been running on a cash basis, with no one keeping a comprehensive ledger of the group’s fluid obligations.
“When I walked in the door, a lot of our direct fundraising mail hadn’t gone out the door because there wasn’t enough money to pay for postage,” Priebus remembers.
He spells out the toxic loop: “If you can’t pay for stamps, you can’t send the letters. And if you can’t send the letters, you can’t bring in money.” So dire were the RNC’s financial straits that Priebus wasn’t certain he had sufficient funds to meet his first payroll.
“We made it happen, but it was a little scary,” he exhales.
Faced with a litany of obstacles, Priebus sprung into action, summoning an experienced team of former national finance chairmen and national bundlers to Washington for a three-day huddle. The goal? To pore through the books and draw up a roadmap to extricate the organization from its shambolic state. Priebus also scheduled four straight weeks of 10-12 hour fundraising call blocks, designed to entice disaffected major donors back into the fold. In an especially wrenching episode, Priebus fired the entire Republican National Convention team in Tampa. They were living extravagantly and “just spending way too much,” he said of the decision. “We needed to give our donors the confidence that we were going to be lean and mean, watch our mouths and get serious. With that approach, we slowly but surely worked our way out of the hole. But it was a long, hard sail.”
Weathering those choppy seas has paid off; the RNC is back on terra firma.
“If we keep moving in the direction we’re headed right now, we will raise more money in this [election] cycle than any other cycle in our history,” Priebus says, adding that he feels “confident” that his team will hit that mark. As of the early summer, the RNC had $60.8 million cash on-hand and was ahead of schedule in paying off its substantial debts.
“Between us and the Romney campaign, I think we can raise between $700 and $800 million through October. We’re going to keep pace with the president,” he predicts. “My general mantra is anything they can do, we can do better.”
One of Priebus’ subtle strengths is that he manages to make his job look easy. It isn’t. His day begins around 6 a.m. every morning, hitting the ground running with emails and phone calls.
“It’s pretty much immediate, and it doesn’t stop until I’m asleep. It’s kind of a disease,” he says with a laugh, only half joking.
On this early summer Thursday, Townhall has been granted exclusive access to the chairman’s frenetic schedule. He’s on the horn with committee members starting at 7:30, prior to embarking on a dizzying battery of media appearances and more calls. He begins by hammering Vice President Joe Biden in an interview with Boston’s WRKO (the signal reaches into the swing state of New Hampshire), followed by a TV hit with Chuck Todd on MSNBC’s “The Daily Rundown.” Next, he will appear live via satellite from the television studio in the basement of RNC headquarters—the word “freedom” and an image of Abraham Lincoln etched into the set’s backdrop. As the segment approaches, RNC Press Secretary Kirsten Kukowski briefs her boss on last-minute nuggets and polls, reminding him of the day’s top talking points. He studies a talking points memo, annotating it with a blue Sharpie. The interview is challenging, but respectful. Priebus fields questions about Mitt Romney’s positions on issues, turning nearly every one on its head and into an indictment of President Obama.
“We’re going to talk about what we want to talk about, regardless of the question,” he confesses after the exchange. Messaging 101.
Next, Priebus hustles back up to his spacious corner office on the fourth floor for an on-air chat with the Salem Radio Network’s Mike Gallagher. A Bluetooth device planted in his ear, Priebus paces the office, smiling and holding a foam football. He tosses it across the room, no receiver intended. (He may be inspired by the ubiquitous Green Bay Packers memorabilia adorning his work space. “I don’t miss a game,” he intones, with due Cheesehead reverence). During the brief exchange, Priebus lays into the president, accusing him of being “intent on importing Europe right here to Washington, D.C.,” and practicing “thug, mafia-style politics.” Kukowski raises an eyebrow and later gently suggests that Priebus reconsider the “thug” reference in future interviews. He concurs.
As the day wears on, Priebus welcomes a Republican U.S. Senate candidate from a tough blue state into his office for a frank discussion of the road ahead. Though he won’t funnel major RNC dollars into the contest, he assures the candidate that the RNC ground game will activate on his behalf. He adds that if the race is within a few points in October, “people will start to go crazy” with financial help—perhaps a contingent commitment of support, perhaps not. After the candidate and his aide are ushered out with a friendly handshake, it’s on to glancing over a few notes for his speech at a dinner in Alexandria later that night. Priebus is the keynote.
Want more? Order the August issue of Townhall Magazine to read more of Benson's exclusive interview with Priebus.
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