Chairman Priebus leads RNC revival: From $23M in the red to $7M in the black

When GOP kingmakers elected Reince Priebus chairman of the Republican National Committee (RNC), they had one thing on their mind.

One year later, Priebus has shown them what they wanted to see: money. And lots of it. 

Republicans enjoyed a historic election in November 2010, but when Priebus took over a couple of months later, the RNC was $23 million in debt. Many donors had stopped giving to the RNC, which had been tarnished by various high-profile controversies. 

Priebus has brought them back, wiping out the RNC’s debt.

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Henry Barbour, a well-respected RNC committeeman from Mississippi, said, “When we had the election for chairman, the question everyone had [was], ‘Who’s going to erase that debt?’ Most people thought it wasn’t practical to think they’d do it in two years — and he wiped it out in one.”

The RNC kept pace with the Democratic National Committee (DNC) in 2011. The GOP committee has $20 million in the bank and $13 million in debt, while the DNC has $12.5 million in cash on hand and $6.5 million in debt.

Priebus, who is not one to crow, told The Hill, “We shot for a huge goal and we hit it. We shocked some people who didn’t think it could be done.”

He achieved the milestone in an intense campaign-finance environment that includes House and Senate GOP committees and a myriad of conservative-leaning groups. 

Priebus said, “I don’t particularly care for the campaign finance laws in this country and the overall structure of the campaign-finance laws, but in the end we had one of the biggest years in history at the RNC. The competition hasn’t been bad for us. I’m sure it cost us some, I’m not sure how much, but I don’t worry too much about it.”

He estimates spending 70 percent of his time on money “and the rest between media and grassroots and political efforts.”

Priebus, who will turn 40 next month, is an avid fan of fishing and the Green Bay Packers. He is now a Washington insider, but is relatively new to the town. 

He married his high-school sweetheart, Sally, and mixed in with his political tweets are pictures of him working with his son Jack on his Pinewood Derby car for the Cub Scouts. Until he joined the RNC, he lived in Kenosha, a lakeside town south of Milwaukee, for nearly all his life. 

“He’s completely restored faith at the RNC amongst donors and activists, he’s been on message and he’s has done a great job raising money, which is the principal role of the RNC chairman,” said Ed Gillespie, who headed the committee in 2003 and 2004. “With Reince, it’s not about him — it’s about building the committee and the party.”

“He’s not an ego guy,” Barbour said. 

“A good chairman has to stay on message, watch his mouth, raise money and be functional and operational, and that’s the world I try to live in all the time,” Priebus told The Hill. “You can’t possibly be a good chairman if the focus is on yourself.”

He did stumble last month when he described President Obama as “our own little Captain Schettino,” the Italian captain who fled his sinking ship as passengers drowned. 

“President Obama [is] abandoning the ship here in the United States and is more interested in campaigning than doing his job as president,” Priebus said on CBS.

Left-leaning blogs pounced on the remark, but the storm quickly passed. 

Priebus’s term extends until the end of this year, though the GOP presidential nominee has the option of bringing in his own chairman.

That appears unlikely, however.

“I can’t see any nominee wanting to come in and replace Reince Priebus,” said Gillespie.

Mike Duncan, another former RNC chairman, said, “Overwhelmingly he’s doing a great job. He’s young, energetic, focused, he keeps his head down and understands the important things.”

Republicans on Capitol Hill also praise Priebus, saying that while they went months without talking to former RNC Chairman Michael Steele, Priebus and his staff are excellent communicators. 

Priebus is not shy in mixing it up with his political opponents, as evidenced by his steady digs at his DNC counterpart, Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (Fla.). The RNC has dubbed her “Debbie Downer,” referring to the “Saturday Night Live” character. 

His style is inclusive. After winning the chairmanship on the seventh ballot, Priebus had a drink with one of the candidates he defeated. 

“He and I were sitting in the hotel lobby having a beer and talking about what each of our ideas were,” said Saul Anuzis, a Michigan RNC committeeman who ran against Priebus for the RNC chairmanship. “He’s brought everybody in.”

Priebus was once a Steele ally, serving as the RNC’s general counsel during the 2010 cycle.

But by 2011, Republicans were looking for a change. Steele had buried the RNC under a mountain of debt, frayed relations with party, made many gaffes on television and had to fire staffers after they had spent thousands of committee dollars at a strip club.

Steele, who sought to stay on at the RNC for a second term, did not respond to requests for comment on this story.

Priebus’s campaign, meanwhile, had two key backers: Barbour and home-state Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.).

“The RNC did not elect him to go out and be a big personality on TV,” said Barbour. “We elected him to get the RNC back in order.”

Many political operatives believe that Wasserman Schultz is on television far more than Priebus. But that’s not so. 

Priebus has done 35 appearances this year while Wasserman Schultz has been on 31 times, according to the RNC.

This year, Priebus will have to broaden his focus to work with the GOP presidential nominee, make sure the Republican National Convention in Tampa goes off without a hitch, and ensure that the RNC’s get-out-the vote operations are humming in the swing states. 

Florida is considered a must-win state for the GOP presidential nominee. But dealing with Florida Republicans, who broke party regulations by moving up their presidential primary, will be politically tricky. 

While there is no question Florida will not be able to seat a full slate of delegates, Priebus must keep key Florida supporters happy as he enforces the RNC’s rules. 

“The toughest part of the job is making sure that all of the important things facing the party in a presidential year are constantly moving forward — juggling fundraising, the convention and the nomination process all at once and staying on message,” Priebus said.