Party chairs see reversal of fortune

Party chairs see reversal of fortune
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The leaders of the Republican and Democratic national parties have had a reversal of fortune over the course of a head-spinning few weeks in the presidential primary process.

The turn of affairs could prove to be career-defining moments for Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus and Democratic National Committee chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz.

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Or it’s possible that Priebus and Wasserman Schulz’s present circumstances are temporary outliers that are due for a course correction – just another stop along the way in a presidential cycle that has been full of surprises.

Either way, political watchers agree: Priebus is enjoying one of the best stretches of his chairmanship, while Wasserman Schultz is fighting for her political life.

“That’s clearly the dynamic at this point,” said one Democratic strategist. “I think it will change once our primary ends and the party unifies. It will have to.”

It was not always this way.

Priebus once looked to be in over his head as he and the party grappled with the rise of Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump says he doesn't want NYT in the White House Veterans group backs lawsuits to halt Trump's use of military funding for border wall Schiff punches back after GOP censure resolution fails MORE.

Trump repeatedly dressed down Priebus in public. He threatened to launch a third-party bid, and as recently as April insinuated that if elected president he’d have the chairman replaced.

Priebus also struggled through an all-out revolt by GOP presidential candidates frustrated by the RNC’s handling of debate negotiations. At times, Priebus appeared to be the powerless figurehead of an organization twisting to appease an unpredictable front-runner.

Angry conservative pundits sharpened their knives for Priebus, with some calling on him to resign. 

“I don’t think I’d want your job right now,” Fox News anchor Sean Hannity told Priebus in front of a room full of grassroots activists at the Conservative Political Action Convention in March.

But Priebus sought to rally Republicans behind their unlikely nominee at an early stage, essentially calling the race for Trump immediately after the Indiana primary in early May, before either Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Better Medicare Alliance - Trump has had a rough October Hillicon Valley: GOP lawmakers offer election security measure | FTC Dem worries government is 'captured' by Big Tech | Lawmakers condemn Apple over Hong Kong censorship Lawmakers condemn Apple, Activision Blizzard over censorship of Hong Kong protesters MORE or John Kasich had stepped aside.

Priebus’s efforts at party unity appear to be paying early dividends, as once-skeptical Republicans climb on board.

Now it’s hard to find anyone who will speak ill of him.

“Priebus will go down in history as one of the most effective RNC chairman in many years,” said U.S. Chamber of Commerce senior political strategist Scott Reed. “His focus on the ground game, big data and bringing adult leadership to the presidential nomination process has been invaluable.”

Even some Democrats – liberal activist Van Jones and Bernie SandersBernie SandersWarren to protest with striking Chicago teachers Sanders: 'Outrageous' to suggest Gabbard 'is a foreign asset' Democratic strategist: Sanders seeking distance from Warren could 'backfire' MORE campaign manager Jeff Weaver among them -- are holding Priebus up as an example of a level-headed leader adept at extinguishing intra-party squabbles.

“If you look at the Republican side, the party chair there has been working day and night to try and…keep everybody together and to try unify the party,” Weaver said Thursday on MSNBC.

Meanwhile, on the Democratic side, it appeared early on that Wasserman Schultz was headed for smooth sailing.  

Her task seemed simple: Prepare the troops for the near-certain outcome of a Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonSanders: 'Outrageous' to suggest Gabbard 'is a foreign asset' Clinton attacks on Gabbard become flashpoint in presidential race Saagar Enjeti: Clinton remarks on Gabbard 'shows just how deep the rot in our system goes' MORE nomination while allowing Bernie Sanders to exercise his right to a proper challenge.

There was some turbulence along the way – some Democrats, including Sanders, took issue with a debate schedule they said was designed to shield the front-runner. And the DNC’s decision to shut the Sanders campaign off from its voter database after a breach ignited a legal battle between the two.

But for the most part those protests dissipated quietly. Wasserman Schultz was able to flyunder the radar, which is where national party chairs prefer to operate. 

That’s not where she is anymore.

Controversy has exploded around Wasserman Schultz and her handling of the primary, with critics accusing her of consistently tilting the scales in favor of Clinton. 

The blowback comes at a time when Clinton supporters are eager for the primary to wind down, even as Sanders continues to draw massive crowds to his rallies, win primaries, and generally dig in his heels over staying in the race.

For many Democrats, Wasserman Schultz's reaction to a disruptive state convention in Nevada was the final straw.

In the aftermath of that event, Wasserman Schultz scolded Sanders and his supporters, blaming them for reports of violence at the convention and demanding an apology. Sanders and his supporters say Wasserman Schultz overplayed the severity of the disruption and was once again too quick to demonize the challenger.

Senators on Capitol Hill are now debating whether she should remain in place through the election.

Sanders has marshaled his supporters to back Wasserman Schultz’s primary challenger,Tim Canova, a law professor who is racking up money and media attention. On Friday, the liberal grassroots group Democracy for America announced its support for Canova.

And key allies appear to have abandoned the six-term congresswoman. Sen. Claire McCaskillClaire Conner McCaskillIranian attacks expose vulnerability of campaign email accounts Ex-CIA chief worries campaigns falling short on cybersecurity Ocasio-Cortez blasts NYT editor for suggesting Tlaib, Omar aren't representative of Midwest MORE (D-Mo.), a Clinton supporter and fierce advocate for women lawmakers, left her twisting in the wind in one recent interview.

“No one is calling on Debbie Wasserman Schultz to step down, but she has a decision to make going forward, because what we all have to focus on now is how we unite and defeat Donald Trump,” McCaskill said Thursday on MSNBC.

To be sure, scores of lawmakers have reached out to The Hill to defend Wasserman Schultz and the job she’s done as DNC chair – most of them her fellow members in the House. Some Democrats believe the media is piling on a politically wounded party official and lawmaker.

“Whenever you have these intra-party fights, the chair is always in a tough position,” said Democratic strategist Joe Trippi. “It’s far too early to say that Priebus has survived this cycle and that Wasserman Schultz hasn’t.”

Indeed, there is plenty of time for fate to swing back the other way for both party officials.

“Winning tends to solve a lot of disputes,” said former Republican National Committee chairman Michael Steele.

Priebus is staking his legacy on rallying the party behind a polarizing nominee, an effort to reach minority voters, and a years-in-the-making data and ground initiative meant to address a long-standing investment deficit compared to Democrats.

He badly needs to prove he can win in a presidential election year.

Conversely, Wasserman Schultz will likely find that all is forgiven if she oversees a cycle in which Clinton takes the White House and Democrats reclaim the Senate.

And there will be plenty of opportunities for both to either stumble or shine along the way: There are still primaries to be held in a handful of states, the potential for a Trump-Sanders debate, and massive conventions where both parties are bracing for disruptions.

“It ain’t over for either one of them,” Steele said.