CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, two of the Republican Party’s big guns, are sticking by Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus and rejecting rumors that they have joined a group trying to block Mr. Priebus from another two-year term as head of the party.
Supporters of Mr. Priebus‘ challenger, Maine RNC member Mark Willis, have been making those claims in emails and through a whisper campaign suggesting that Mr. Paul and Mr. Gingrich have been supporting Mr. Willis behind the scenes. Mr. Willis was a supporter of the 2012 presidential campaign of Mr. Paul’s father, Rep. Ron Paul, a Texas libertarian.
“Rand has not endorsed anyone officially and looks forward to working with Reince over the coming two years,” Doug Stafford, the younger Mr. Paul’s chief of staff said in an interview, adding that the senator “believes Reince will be handily re-elected this week.”
Despite the party’s setback in the 2012 elections, including the defeat of presidential candidate Mitt Romney and unexpected losses for the Senate, Mr. Priebus, the former GOP state chairman in Wisconsin, has the endorsement of the top Republican leaders in Congress. He is credited with retiring the $24 million debt he inherited from his predecessor, Michael S. Steele, and with having raised enough from once-alienated major party donors to help bankroll Mr. Romney’s presidential campaign and still leave the RNC with $4 million in the bank.
Claiming more than 150 assured votes — well over the 85 needed to win, Mr. Priebus appears ready to sail to easy victory when the 168 members of the RNC vote on the third day of their annual winter meeting in Charlotte on Friday. And the rumors of top-level defections to the opposition appear to be exaggerated.
Mr. Willis and his supporters have suggested that Mr. Priebus‘ decision not to solicit competitive bids from consultants who were awarded millions of dollars in contracts for the 2012 presidential elections amounted to misuse of donors’ dollars to the benefit of favored consultants. They also accuse Mr. Priebus of using the machinery and resources of the RNC itself to ensure his re-election.
“We know of no misuse of funds by the chairman and don’t believe this is where we should concentrate our time and effort,” Mr. Stafford said, speaking for his boss. “We are aiming for a stronger, more vibrant party with the right message and waging grass-roots involvement and support.”
Mr. Paul’s Kentucky voter base was strongest among tea party activists and libertarian conservative backers of his father.
While preparing for a 2016 presidential nomination run of his own, Mr. Paul has been broadening that base to include evangelical Protestant and Jewish supporters, two groups who were unfriendly toward his father.
Trying to bounce back
A smooth re-election for Mr. Priebus would give the party‘ machinery a welcome break from the negative headlines and internal finger-pointing that followed the November election results, and the party’s spending decisions and its get-out-the-vote infrastructure came in for heavy criticism. But first Mr. Priebus must get by his challenger.
Mr. Willis was on his state’s general election ballot as the write-in vice presidential running mate of the senior Mr. Paul, the last Republican candidate still standing when Mr. Romney clinched the party’s nomination last summer.
Party regulars see the Willis insurgency as a move by a segment of Ron Paul’s most dedicated supporters to take over the GOP, and an expression of lingering anger over a floor fight centered on the Maine delegation at the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Fla. The delegation staged a walkout when a slate of Maine delegates pledged to Mr. Paul — including Mr. Willis — were replaced by RNC officials with Romney backers, citing violations of party nominating procedures.
Mr. Willis, in a recent interview with the website blogcritics.org, praised Mr. Priebus for putting the RNC’s financial house in order over the past two years, but added, “that’s really his only claim to fame and all he has to campaign on.”
“I want to get those people who have stopped donating [and are] staying away from the party and give them a reason to get excited again,” he said. “If you’re a Republican and you’ve got ideas, you’re welcome and no one is going to be driven away or ostracized like some of our delegates in Tampa.”
Many Priebus supporters agree with Mr. Willis‘ suggestions and recommendations for improving the party’s message and procedures, but question whether he was loyal to the Republican presidential ticket because his name was put on the Maine general election ballot in September after Mr. Romney and running mate Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin had clinched the nomination.
Mr. Willis told The Times that four of Maine’s electors got him qualified as a write-in candidate without his knowledge.
One of the four electors recently wrote Mr. Willis a letter of apology for not having asked his permission before signing, with the other three electors, a notarized request to the Maine secretary of state’s office for his write-in candidacy status.
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Chief political writer Ralph Z. Hallow served on the Chicago Tribune, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Washington Times editorial boards, was Ford Foundation Fellow in Urban Journalism at Northwestern University, resident at Columbia University Editorial-Page Editors Seminar and has filed from Berlin, Bonn, London, Paris, Geneva, Vienna, Amman, Beirut, Cairo, Damascus, Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Belgrade, Bucharest, Panama and Guatemala.
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