I’ll admit I’m a Reince Priebus fan. He’s not exactly a household name. In fact, most people don’t know how to pronounce his name (it is “Rhine-tz Pree-bus”). But the scrappy, no-nonsense Wisconsinite with the pronounced accent (sounds a little Fargo) is both competent and self-effacing, a rare combination in a town (Washington) filled with all hat, no cattle big shots. He’s a tireless worker on unglamorous tasks (unlike his predecessor), and he’s rarely if ever off message (also unlike his predecessor).
He’s said to be leaning toward staying on as chairman of the Republican National Committee to continue the already-begun post-mortem of 2012 and party-modernization effort.
He’s not the “face” of the GOP any more than Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D- Fla.) is the face of the Democrats. And he leaves the legislative maneuvering to the elected officials. His focus, instead, is on dragging Republicans into 21st-century campaigning. The widespread sense within the RNC is that the Romney campaign in essence left votes on the table, losing gettable supporters and winnable states by virtue of sheer incompetence and poor information. The RNC has refrained from publicly criticizing the Romney camp but its massive review of the election is designed to, in essence, figure out what went wrong and make sure it doesn’t happen again.
There are numerous challenges for Priebus, if he stays on, or for someone else if he doesn’t. These include technical issues and reinvention. The RNC isn’t going to decide an immigration position or pick favorites in the 2016 race; that is not its role. There is, however, plenty it can be expected to take on. The following is a compilation of thoughts and ideas most frequently mentioned in a dozen or so post-election conversations I have had with party insiders, fundraisers, Hill staffers, gubernatorial advisers and (successful) Republican consultants. They spoke off the record so they could offer unvarnished observations.
Near the top of the list is figuring out why Democrats’ get-out-the vote (GOTV) operation is so much more sophisticated than that of Republicans. Using self-congratulatory metrics (knocked on 1 million doors!) has to be replaced with more detailed and nuanced measures of effective voter engagement.
Along with GOTV modernization, the RNC would be well-advised to put together a comprehensive guide to the disaster of 2012: a detailed account of polling, advertising and every other aspect of the campaign operation. Then it should make that guide available early in the 2016 planning stages to each and every serious candidate so that the next crop of candidates understands what not to do and need not repeat the errors (including poor staff selection) that occurred in 2012. Along with that, the RNC can promote and train rising stars who were not at the top of the presidential campaign but showed promise and know what went wrong.
The RNC needs to give serious thought to redoing the primary schedule, moving up in the schedule states that are better indicators of general-election success and dumping or professionalizing caucuses (the Iowa and Nevada debacles can’t be repeated). There is general agreement that the proportional-delegate system dragged the process out too long. The official nomination (either by convention or ministerial action) must come earlier in the summer to afford candidates access to general-election dollars and coordinated fundraising.
The RNC should also seize control of the debate process. Any network or news organization can invite whomever they want (candidates be forewarned!), but the RNC-official events should be fewer and afford opportunities for more expansive discussion. Standing all the candidates at podiums to bicker in 60-second soundbites is counterproductive. Do one town hall. Do another forum in which candidates appear individually for 15 minutes or so (akin to the Palmetto Forum hosted by Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.). Have a mainstream-media moderator or two (the nominee will have to deal with them in a general-election setting so they can use the practice), but also use former elected officials, new media figures and think tanks to supply knowledgeable questioners.
Redesign the Republican Senate Campaign Committee to be more effective at recruitment and development of campaign-ready candidates. Simply having served in the House (e.g., Todd Akin) is no guarantee of success in a Senate race. State parties seem to have greater success in finding able candidates for state elections. What are they doing right?
Rethink the communications operation in new media. Instead of acting as a Twitter meeting organizer (“Boehner will speak at 1 p.m. today”) or wire service (“Boehner spoke at 1 p.m. today”) or bland talking-points-generator, the RNC can facilitate discussion among local and state officials and regional conservative media, engage in debates on key policy fights, promote some civil debate on the right and forcefully push back against the pack Twitteratti on the left.
Help provide donors with information and analysis on races and past voting history help them to make informed choices. (“In the last statewide elections in New Hampshire, these were the top concerns for voters. To win, a GOP candidate has to construct a coalition of ....”)
In sum, there is plenty the RNC can do to rev up the GOP campaign engine, promote effective candidate selection and minimize the shoot-themselves-in-the-foot opportunities. Priebus is fully capable of doing all this, and if he steps down, someone else who can (rather than a figurehead or TV star) should succeed him.