Reince Priebus has been at the head of the Republican National Committee for over a year, but he’s still a Wisconsinite at heart. In his office at RNC headquarters on Captiol Hill, he points to a photo on the wall of costumed characters racing at Miller park, home to the Milwaukee Brewers. “You have the presidents,” he says referring to the four former presidential costumed characters at Nationals Park. “We have sausages.” He the proceeds to tell me which kind of sausage is represented by which character in the photo. You can take the chairman out of Wisconsin, but not, it seems, Wisconsin out of the chairman.
He is in a sunny mood. Why wouldn’t he be after Rosengate? “When a hurricane knocks down a house of cards” that’s something to relish, he tells me.
Priebus is widely respected for repairing much of the damage to the RNC wrought by Michael Steele. “We went from disaster to trust and confidence,” is how he describes the effort. He credits his staff and RNC donors for coming together. His goal, he explains, was to “make sure [the RNC] would be functional, operational and help save the country,” which he defines as defeating President Obama.
As of the end of February the RNC had $26.5 million cash on hand. In that month Priebus raised $11.3 million. The major donors also seem to be back. According to an RNC spokeswoman the party has raised a record $5.83 from major donors. The presiential trust fund that was headed by Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) is fully funded wit $21.6 million. On the organizational side, the RNC will be fully staffed up in 9 battleground states by the end of the month.
With robust Senate and House election committees, outside groups like American Crossroads, and billionaire superPAC donors what is the role for the RNC? He answers, “No one in American can do what we and the DNC do — raise money and coordinate with campaigns,” which makes the RNC the indispensable player “who connects the voter to the candidate to the ballot box.” In grassroots organizing, get-out-the-vote efforts and absentee ballot targeting and distribution, the RNC, Priebus contends, plays a critical role.
As for the Romney campaign, he stresses, “Out of respect for Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul” the RNC still has not launched its joint fund-raising operation. He adds, though, that “It’s possible [to do this] before [Romney hits] 1144 [delegates].”
Not surprisingly, Priebus doesn’t hold back in his criticism of what he sees is an excessively negative campaign by the president: “He has a problem. He ran in such a grand fashion...but we have a catastrophe. He hasn’t fulfilled the promises he made to the American people.” Pointing to the debt commission, the Medicare reform plan offered by Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and the lack of an energy policy, he argues that the president “side-stepped a lot of opportunities” to address major issues. In his view, “He promised the world and delivered nothing.”
Hinting at where the RNC messaging will be directed, Priebus reiterates that “if we show the promises he made and the standards he set and where we are and what the truth is,” the president can be defeated. Because Obama’s record is shaky, Priebus contends, “the president is running on fear and division and hatred. It’s all about rich vs. poor, men vs. women and Democrats vs. Republicans.”
The contrast, he suggests, is vast between the president’s campaign and Mitt Romney’s. He explains, “Mitt Romney could just it back and criticize Obama. But he’s done two things.” In addition to explaining how Obama “did not fulfill his promises,” Romney, according to Priebus, “had the guts to put on the table what he believes in.” He points to Romney’s proposals on taxes, entitlements and foreign policy. This is starkly different from the Democrats’ approach in 2006 and 2008, when they ran on an “I’m not George Bush” platform, he recalls.
Republicans’ outreach to Hispanic voter is of great concern to conservatives, who see the polls and understand how critical that segment of the electorate will be, especially in some key states like New Mexico, Florida and Nevada. Priebus thinks the party can get back to the level of support (about 40 percent) President George Bush was able to get among Hispanics. He ticks off three reasons for confidence.
First, he says, “It is fair to say as far as the conservative movement and the Republican party go, we at a minimum start at a better level.” That is largely because of the economy. (Hispanic unemployment is currently over ten percent.) Certainly, running in the Obama economy is a different proposition than running in the wake of the financial meltdown on Bush’s watch.
Second, he tells me, “The messengers are just much better.” He points to Sen. Marco Rubio(R-Fla.), Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval and the first Latina governor, Susana Martinez of New Mexico. He also stresses the effectiveness and charisma of Puerto Rico’s popular governor, Luis Fortuño. “We need to bring him out. We will do that,” he says.
Third, he explains the nuts and bolts organization he is putting together. ”I’m a big fan of metrics, “ he says. While some past RNC chairmen have been essentially spokesmen for the party, Priebus is focused on measurable results. “You’re either doing it or you’re not. We file a report at the end of every month [showing the RNC’s financial status],” he explains. If the RNC isn’t performing donors, officials and candidates know it. To that end, Priebus says by next week he will have victory chairmen and victory centers specifically focused on Hispanic voterss in Florida, Virginia, North Carolina, Nevada, Colorado and New Mexico. He says “we are paying people” to deliver results. This may be in counting absentee ballots sent out and voter calls made, for example. With the goal of strengthening get-out-the-vote and absentee ballot distribution to Hispanic voters, Priebus hopes to turn out all the available voters out there.
But, of course, the message to Hispanic voters on everything from immigration to schools and the economy must come from the Romney camp. He will need to explain his agenda in terms that are attractive to Hispanic voters. On immigration, Priebus is sensitive to the problem that Republicans may have turned off critical voters. He insists, “It is important to note we’re having intelligent conversation [on immigration reform.]” He adds that Rubio will likely be bringing up legislation on a GOP version of the DREAM Act. And again Priebus argues the president’s own record is subject to attack. He claims that when it comes to Hispanic voters “Obama lied to them” or was “so grossly negligent” in failing to deliver on any immigration legislation. Still, it’s apparent that on immigration and other issues, Romney has a way to go in making the sale to Hispanic voters.
Priebus isn’t impressed with the presidents latest gambits. He calls the Buffett rule “garbage,” and claims that if he really wanted to pass it he would have done so in the first to years when he had Democratic majorities in the House and Senate.
Finally, we turn to his home state and the recall effort to oust Gov. Scott Walker (R). He argues, “The Democrats are absolute fools. They’ve been perfecting the art of losing.” He points to the top two Democratic contenders, Tom Barrett (who lost to Walker in 2010) and Kathy Falk, who managed to lose a statewide race in 2006, a banner year for Democrats. Meanwhile, the Democrats and Big Labor, he says, have “dumped $30 million into the race.” All that has accomplished, he contends, is to “set up Wisconsin to be in play in November.” If they shoot their wad in June and lose, Democrats will have their backs up against a wall trying to hold the state for Obama, he argues.
He makes the case that this is a far different situation from Ohio, where an anti-collective bargaining measure went down to defeat last year. In Ohio Democrats claimed if the measure passed the “sky is going to fall.” But in Wisconsin the law has been in place for a year, and it is working, he contends.
The lion share of the burden in the presidential campaign will rest on Romney’s shoulders. However, the good news is that Priebus will offer an RNC that can help rather than hurt Romney’s effort. That’s nothing to sneeze at.
UPDATE (2:58 p.m): The RNC announced it raises $13.7 million in March, its best month total for the 2012 election.