Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus is poised to make history.
If balloting goes as veteran vote counters expect at the RNC’s annual winter meeting in San Diego on Friday, he will win re-election.
That will make him the first to lead his party’s national governing body for three consecutive terms while Democrats hold the White House.
A former Wisconsin Republican Party chairman, Mr. Priebus has managed to maintain generally warm acceptance by the 168-member RNC’s growing conservative wing as well as by its moderates, who have close ties with the GOP establishment.
Mr. Priebus first won election as RNC boss in January 2011, two years after Barack Obama took the oath of office for president. Mr. Priebus defeated RNC Chairman Michael S. Steele, who was seeking a second term that year.
His secret for success has been to persuade the right that he listens to its views and principles and takes them seriously, while doing little to alienate centrists. Even his joining a massive pro-life march on the National Mall, an action unprecedented by RNC chiefs, did not put him at permanent odds with pro-choice members of his national committee.
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He has already left his mark on the national committee. Under his leadership, the RNC for the first time has wrested control of the presidential debate process from the TV networks that host the debates.
Those networks in the past have named all the reporters who get to quiz the candidates for Republican presidential nominations and for fall general elections. Next year, the RNC will allow only debates it sanctions and will approve the names of those who ask the candidates questions.
Mr. Priebus and his allies have said the aim is to have questioners draw out the candidates on issues and substance rather than blindside them with “gotcha” questions that have little bearing on the decisions a president will face in office.
“Before he led RNC members on the 2014 March for Life in the U.S. capital, he was the first national chairman to take an RNC delegation on an official visit to Taiwan,” said Solomon Yue, who has been an Oregon RNC member for 14 years and has seen many chairmen come and go.
Mr. Yue said the Priebus Taiwan trip was important because it signaled Beijing that one of America’s two major parties intends to stick with U.S. commitments to Taiwan’s safety, security and freedom.
“Supporting life and Taiwan are part of our platform,” Mr. Yue said.
Another Priebus accomplishment is having the RNC start raising presidential campaign money earlier in each election cycle and deploying staff earlier. The RNC did this for the first time in Senate battleground states last year, which may have helped Republicans win control of the chamber.
“I have come to see the chairman’s primary responsibility as fundraising,” said Cindy Costa, a South Carolina RNC member since 1996. “When Reince came into office, we were in a deep hole financially. His legacy will be that he has had a remarkable ability to sell the Republican brand to our donors effectively.”
Arizona RNC member Bruce Ash thinks Mr. Priebus’ appeal to the broad spectrum of fellow members is twofold. “From the start, Reince has been very approachable as a members’ chairman,” Mr. Ash said. “At the same time, he has rebuilt our incredible network of high net worth donors.”
No one has mounted a challenge to Mr. Priebus’ quest for a third term, and there are not enough uncommitted votes left to even submit the name of a challenger by the time the RNC meeting kicks off Wednesday, insiders say.
Mr. Priebus presides over an RNC that is comprised of a state Republican Party chairman and an elected national committee man and woman from each of the 50 states and five U.S. territories.
At least two of the three RNC members from each of three states or territories constitute the minimum backing required to put someone’s name in nomination for chairman. Mr. Priebus is said to have no worries on that count.
He won his second term as RNC chairman in 2013, even though he presided over the party when Mr. Obama won a second term the previous year. Mr. Priebus escaped the punishment that Mr. Steele suffered in part because there was more than enough blame to go around for the 2012 loss of the presidency and in part because the refreshing absence of the cronyism and questionable financial expenditures that dogged Mr. Steele’s tenure.
Republicans failed to retake the presidency, but the RNC healed relations with major donors that had frayed under Mr. Steele.
From the viewpoint of the dominant right wing of his committee, Mr. Priebus has taken some false steps. The most annoying to some conservatives was his 2012 election postmortem that his appointed special committee prepared and that to critics on the right appeared designed to pave the way for illegal immigrants to gain citizenship.
But Mr. Priebus, a lawyer and a counselor to Mr. Steele when he was chairman, disentangled himself quickly from that immigration mess.
From the history book perspective, Mr. Priebus’ most memorable accomplishment may well be changing national committee history. Whether Republican or Democrat, that history has dictated that a president traditionally lets his party’s officials know whom he favors to head the national committee. The committee’s members then dutifully go through the formality of electing that designee as their chairman.
There is no Republican president to grease the skids for Mr. Priebus, so if he winds up presiding during a Republican administration after 2016, he may well wind up with a prestigious ambassadorial appointment from the next president.
If things go the Republicans’ way, he will be in a position to name his ticket among big-name law firms if that’s his pleasure — and politics watchers probably will say he earned it.