What a difference a year makes, or even six months when it comes to assessing the electoral strength of the Republican Party. “If you look at which party is riding high and which party is in the dumps, the Democrats are in the dumps,” Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus told a group of reporters on the one-year anniversary of his “Growth and Opportunity” roadmap urging the GOP to “embrace and champion comprehensive immigration reform,” a re-branding exercise that his party promptly rejected.
“Is anyone writing stories that say it’s not looking like a disaster for Democrats?” Priebus challenged the reporters, answering his question “It’s a disaster for Democrats.” It’s so bad for Democrats heading into the 2014 midterms that the RNC raised almost 20 million more than the DNC last year, Priebus said. “I don’t think in recorded history the party out of power outraised the party in power so soon after the election.”
The re-positioning on issues that Priebus favored has fallen by the wayside, a casualty of the internal wars within the party. Instead, Priebus has shifted instead to the more technocratic side of politics, putting in place year-round ground operations in battleground states, making investments in technology, and re-doing his party’s primary calendar to head off a repeat of the 23 debates that turned the 2012 Republican primary contest into a clown show.
“We’ve fundamentally reshaped the way we do business at the RNC,” he told reporters over breakfast in Washington sponsored by the Christian Science Monitor. While Mitt Romney’s loss to President Obama in 2012 was seen by some in the party as a mismatch on issues, others in the GOP attributed the loss of a race Romney should have won given the state of the economy to the GOP’s failure to keep up with the Obama campaign’s efforts to identify and turnout potential voters.
Saying he wasn’t blaming any one person or previous RNC chairs, Priebus described a situation where “slowly over time the RNC had become a U-Haul trailer of cash hooked up to a candidate for a short period of time, and then disappearing for four years.” In Priebus’s opinion, this left the party atrophied and ill-equipped to deal with the onslaught of new technology, much of it pioneered by the Obama campaign. In an attempt to change this approach, the GOP is now sending party operatives out across the country. “I’m not telling you we’ve carpeted the world,” Priebus said, but 91 percent of the RNC staff is “fanned out across the country,” and thanks to vastly improved technology they have at their fingertips all the tools that tens of millions of dollars was able to buy.
The special election in Florida earlier this month was a test case, and the RNC chair claimed that Republican candidate won in part because the GOP’s field operation was demonstrably better than the Democrat. This, combined with the Obamacare backlash, proved decisive in his analysis. “We’re in for a tsunami type election in 2014,” Priebus said, forecasting “a very big win in the Senate” that would give the GOP majority control. “The question is whether we can build on this for 2016 and pick a candidate people feel they can sit down and have a beer with.”
As bullish as Republicans are about the midterms and their better than even chance to gain control, the mood is something closer to despair about winning the White House in 2016. To boost the possibility of producing a stronger nominee than Romney was by the end of the primaries, Priebus has shortened the primary calendar and announced the start date for the convention will be June 27 or July 18, 2016 (as opposed to late August). Eight cities have applied to host the convention compared to just 3 four years ago, and the winner will be announced in August.
The change that got the most attention from reporters was Priebus’ almost offhand remark that the debate moderators would be “handpicked.” Asked who’s blackballed, Priebus said, “I don’t have a list. I know it when I see it.” He said he is looking for people “who truly care about the party, and the process.” The RNC was heavily criticized in 2012 for agreeing to debates hosted by media outlets perceived as unsympathetic like MSNBC as opposed to Fox News. “We need to take control of our nominating process, which I don’t think we did in 2012,” he said, explaining he wasn’t sure what “concept” he would follow to do so.
Priebus’ term is up in another seven or eight months, and he was coy about whether he would run again. If Republicans can take back control of the Senate, as he seems confident they will do, he can probably write his own ticket and he’ll be forgiven for suggesting back in those dark days after the 2012 election that the party should focus on immigration reform and do a better job of reaching out to minorities and talking to women. From his perspective, because of what he calls “the toxicity” of Obamacare, other issues have lost their urgency in rallying voters, and the kind of reform he once advocated can be safely set aside, at least until 2016.