- - Tuesday, April 10, 2012


Although we live in a post-Citizens United world of super PACs, the national party committees re- main relevant, in fact, vital, to winning national campaigns.

As any former or current party chairman will tell you, there are certain things that only a national party can do. It’s important that it does them well.

As such, a functioning Republican National Committee is one of the key requirements for Republicans to unseat an incumbent president for only the second time in the past 100 years. (The first was Ronald Reagan over President Jimmy Carter in 1980.)

Reince Priebus, a former chairman of the Republican Party of Wisconsin, did not have a national profile when he won election to national party chairman on the seventh ballot on Jan. 14, 2011. More importantly, he was inheriting an epic disaster handed to him by Michael S. Steele, whose reign as party chairman was a disaster.

Upon taking over, Mr. Priebus inherited a $21 million debt, a bloated staff with low morale and few prospects for immediate fundraising. How bad were things? Political director Gentry Collins, a respected senior GOP operative who had run the Republican Party of Iowa and had been a senior campaign aide to Mitt Romney and John McCain in 2008, released an unusual and scathing four-page letter in November 2010 detailing how bad a job Mr. Steele did.

Had Mr. Priebus done a mediocre job, he would deserve sincere appreciation for taking on this exhausting role in a presidential cycle after the mess he was given.

But Mr. Priebus has quietly led a renaissance at the RNC, with a methodical, disciplined, hard-working, blue-collar approach that has paid major dividends at a critical time for the Republican Party nationally.

First, Mr. Priebus brought in respected operatives Ed Gillespie and Nick Ayers to oversee the transition. They quickly made drastic cuts to the staff and overhead and undertook a thoughtful strategic analysis to forge a path forward. Together, they convinced top staffers to come to the RNC, with Jeff Larson moving from Minnesota to become chief of staff, veteran operative Rick Wiley joining as political director, Sean Spicer leading the communications team, and eventually Joe Pounder leading the round-the-clock research shop. Former ambassador Ron Weiser, whose determination is legendary, was convinced to join as national finance chairman. The team was a significant upgrade and sent a signal to the political and finance community that there was a new sheriff in town.

In the past 15 months, the RNC has raised more than $110 million, which the New York Times reported they had banked “nearly half of it in cash and trust-fund reserves to be used in the upcoming general election,” a staggering figure for being the party without the White House. About $22 million was placed into a presidential trust, chaired by Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, available to be transferred immediately to the campaign of the Republican nominee, a quick boost after this year’s long, costly and divisive primary.

According to the New York Times, the Democratic National Committee raised $27 million more than the RNC over the same period, not unusual for the party with the White House, but its burn rate left it with less cash on hand ($21 million compared to $26.7 million at the end of March). The RNC has demonstrated greater discipline than its counterpart. The Republican nominee will benefit from it.

“There was a donor strike of sorts at the end of 2010,” former RNC Deputy Chairman Frank Donatelli said recently, adding that Mr. Priebus has “regained the confidence of those major donors.” Strong fundraising has allowed the RNC to erase nearly half of its debt in 15 months.

True in a campaign of any size, strong finances allow for a strong ground organization.

The RNC already has campaign offices in Florida, North Carolina and Virginia, with more planned in other states in the coming weeks. In Wisconsin alone, Republican volunteers have made more than 1 million voter contacts, which equals the total number of voter contacts repeatedly made by the Obama campaign nationally.

Efficient and effective voter contact requires first-rate data, and the RNC has invested in updating and upgrading “Voter Vault,” which had deteriorated from George W. Bush’s re-election of 2004 to the McCain campaign in 2008.

One of the primary roles of the RNC when challenging a president of the opposing party is always to be on offense. Under Mr. Spicer, the RNC communications team has done this, bracketing President Obama’s travel, organizing a team of surrogates and constantly unveiling new Web and television ads, as it did Monday with a new ad, “Obama 2012 from Hope and Hypocrisy.” They set out to achieve “leaner but speedier” response efforts, as recently detailed by CNN.

The RNC appointed Bettina Inclan to manage its Hispanic voter outreach program nationally and in target states, which eventually will include field efforts, and already includes social media and a new website.

All this has been done in 15 months.

“We are at least 90 days ahead of where the RNC has ever been in history,” Mr. Priebus recently said in a statement. Given the mess he inherited, that is quite an accomplishment.

If Republicans win the White House in 2012, the RNC will be a major reason why.

Matt Mackowiak is a Republican consultant and president of Potomac Strategy Group.

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