December 11, 2012

Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus recently announced that he had lined up sufficient support to be reelected next month. Indeed, while a few names have been tossed around by pundits as potential competitors, no serious rival to Priebus has emerged. Given what he has accomplished and what is left to do, it is understandable that Republicans wouldn’t be falling over themselves to take his job.

Reince Priebus
Reince Priebus in January 2011, after winning election as Republican National Committee chairman. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais/Associated Press)

I spoke by telephone with Priebus this morning. He sounded remarkably chipper for the chairman of a party that lost not only a presidential race but also multiple Senate races. He is optimistic about his new project, the Growth and Opportunity Project, which is looking into correcting the party’s flaws and making the GOP battle-ready in  2014 and 2016. He says, “It’s going to be a massive process. This is just the start of this. Any people or ideas we need to talk to or bring into the process is where we are going to go.”

Priebus says many factors played into the GOP’s losses last month. “I favor ‘all of the above,’ ” he says of the list of commonly identified issues. However, he tells me, “The GOP generally did a good job in 9 to 12 months, but the other side did a great job in four years.” What he means is that the GOP lacks a ready-to-go, winning operation that candidates can tap over the coming years.

One of the most commonly cited problems for the GOP is its difficulty in attracting minority voters. Priebus says that he wants to “see the process play out.” However, he says he strongly suspects that the party needs “a three-year community-based effort” to reach out to Hispanics, African Americans and Asian Americans. “Some eight-month program isn’t going to cut it,” he says. In other words, there is no shortcut for a sustained program of voter registration, community outreach and candidate development in places Republicans have not visited (or have gone to only in an election year).

Some Republicans insist that progress with minority voters is not possible so long as the party maintains opposition to comprehensive immigration reform. Priebus is careful not to get ahead of his party or its elected leaders. He says, “I can’t tell you what policy recommendations, if any, will be made, but when you are doing a deep dive like this it is hard not to look at the message. Policy bleeds into a lot of things.”

He also seems aware the GOP has to accelerate modernization of the party apparatus and communications operations. “We need to bring in experts from all over — [including] Silicon Valley and people who’ve never been involved in politics.” He says that, over a four-year period, the RNC should have a top-of-the-line operation that the party’s presidential candidate can “plug into.”

So far Priebus has received little push-back, perhaps because failure breeds urgency. He says, “The grass-roots, donors and party leaders are all hungry to develop a program they can buy into. They are disappointed [in 2012 election results] but not discouraged.”

He bristles at the suggestion that the GOP doesn’t have leaders or a unified message. “Republicans have the horsepower when it comes to the future of the country,” he argues. He then reels off a list of the top Republican contenders, including Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.), Rep. Paul Ryan (Wis.), New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez and South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley. “They are diverse, young and incredible communicators,” he says. As for developing a single message, Priebus dismisses the notion that is even a desirable goal: “Nothing is better than to have diversity, people from different walks of life all coming together on what we share in common –  liberty, freedom and opportunity.”

Priebus is not in denial about the extent of the party’s problems. If the findings of his project are as far-reaching as he and his co-chairs expect, the RNC will have its work cut out in building the infrastructure of the party. In that sense, the congressional election in 2014 will be a progress report on the efforts to drag the Republican Party into the 21st century. The true test, however, will come in 2016, when the party will need to find a quality presidential candidate with widespread appeal and a message that can resonate with occasional voters.

Unless candidates with the common touch and an appealing message can engage both the base and the wider electorate, Priebus’s efforts won’t bear fruit. If anything, the RNC learned in 2010 and 2012 that good candidates generally beat weak ones.

Jennifer Rubin writes the Right Turn blog for The Post, offering reported opinion from a conservative perspective.