The Organizer: How Reince Priebus Got the Convention (and the GOP) Back on Track

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RNC chairman Reince Priebus


Most Americans have probably never heard of him. Those who have still can’t pronounce his name. But he is the official leader of the Republican Party, and the GOP’s face here in Tampa this week — at least until Mitt Romney takes the stage on Thursday night. And for Reince Priebus, it has not been much fun.

The Republican National Committee chairman had hoped to “launch this week on the right tone,” as he put it in a morning conference call with reporters on Tuesday, touting his party’s virtues and fine-tuning “the buildup to the nomination of Mitt Romney.” The reality has been less appealing. Priebus has been a glorified meteorologist, chronicling storm system Isaac and its impact on the convention schedule. The politics hasn’t been easy, either: on Monday, Priebus had an on-air confrontation with MSNBC host Chris Matthews, prompting the RNC chairman to declare Matthews a “jerk” in a subsequent interview. And he has had to look over his shoulder at disgruntled Ron Paul supporters who might cause a ruckus on the convention floor.

For all the headaches, Preibus — his first name rhymes with pints, and his last is pronounced Pree-bus — has mostly won the admiration of his party’s delegates and operatives. Though he’s not the slickest public spokesman the GOP has known, Preibus has been an effective behind-the-scenes operator and fundraiser. He wins particular credit for turning around a party apparatus that was left in near ruins by his predecessor Michael Steele, who alienated staff members, donors and party leaders while leaving the RNC with an astounding $23 million in debt.

Steele might have been a better presence on television. (He has since found a second career as an MSNBC talking head.) But in addition to his failures as a manager, Steele also aggravated party insiders with his undisciplined public speaking. Where Steele was something of a pundit-in-waiting, Priebus — a lawyer by training — takes a more cautious, methodical approach. “I’ve watched my mouth and stayed on message,” he told the Huffington Post last week. (Steele, for his part, is an odd presence in Tampa, largely unwelcome and unloved among the party faithful he led just a couple of years ago. “I have not been invited to the convention at all,” he told the Washington Examiner.)

At 40, Priebus is strikingly young for a party chairman (although his age seems less striking when you consider that Paul Ryan is only 42). Originally from Kenosha, Wis., he ran and lost a race for state senate in 2004, then headed the Wisconsin GOP before serving as the RNC’s general counsel under Steele. One Republican operative with experience in Wisconsin says Priebus distinguished himself with an ability to unify the party establishment and its restive Tea Party wing and is doing a similarly effective job at the national level.

Perhaps most important — certainly from the Romney campaign’s perspective — the RNC under Priebus has again become a well-oiled fundraising machine. The 2002 McCain-Feingold campaign-finance-reform law that banned massive soft-money contributions to the national parties redirected huge political donations to outside groups like American Crossroads, the super PAC co-founded by Karl Rove in 2010. But individual donors can still give $30,800 to party committees and their state and local affiliates. Since April, the Romney campaign and the RNC have conducted a joint fundraising operation that is now raising money at a clip of more than $100 million per month. (Click here to see a joint Romney-RNC fundraising invite, complete with convoluted details about donation limits and how the money will be distributed to a slew of state parties and GOP campaign committees.) To help facilitate this operation, a senior RNC staffer often works from the Romney headquarters in Boston. A former RNC chairman, Ed Gillespie, also happens to be a top Romney campaign adviser.

For the moment, however, big-dollar fundraising is taking a backseat to the mundane details of nationally televised stagecraft. On his conference call on Tuesday, Priebus walked through the day’s agenda and logistics, noting the importance of “making sure that delegates are properly seated.” Much as he has done at the RNC, Reince Priebus is looking to impose order on a convention that has opened in a state of disorder.