- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 11, 2016

It wasn’t long ago that Reince Priebus looked like a quarterback on the verge of being sacked.

The Republican National Committee chairman struggled throughout the campaign to unite a party badly split over Donald Trump’s nomination, knowing he would absorb the blame for what polls predicted would be a third consecutive GOP presidential defeat.

But growing up in the shadow of the Green Bay Packers will teach you a thing or two about avoiding the pass rush.

Instead of taking the fall for a losing season, Mr. Priebus was named White House chief of staff after navigating an unpredictable election and firing up a ground game that helped Republicans defy predictions, capture the presidency and keep both houses of Congress.

The other members of Wisconsin’s Republican big three — House Speaker Paul D. Ryan and Gov. Scott Walker — didn’t fare so badly either despite their well-publicized feuding at various times during the campaign with Mr. Trump.

After an early exit from the presidential primary, Mr. Walker rebounded last month by taking over as chairman of the Republican Governors Association, while Mr. Ryan was unanimously chosen for another term as House speaker.

The Wisconsin Republicans mended fences at the right moments with Mr. Trump, then rallied to bring out the cheesehead vote and swing the state for a GOP presidential nominee for the first time since 1984.

“I think the only thing more astonishing this year is the Chicago Cubs winning the World Series,” said Charles Franklin, professor and director of the Marquette University Law School Poll in Milwaukee.

“All three of them looked to be in some significant political trouble,” Mr. Franklin said. “You had the Trump phenomenon, and Priebus often being in a tight spot on that. And then when he aligned with Trump as Trump clinched the nomination, Priebus became in trouble with a different wing of the party.”

“He couldn’t win,” Mr. Franklin said. “Except that on Nov. 8, he did.”

Indeed, for months Mr. Priebus was relegated to playing the tortoise to Democratic National Committee chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz’s hare. As she coasted toward what analysts said was a surefire win for Democrat Hillary Clinton, Mr. Priebus was locked in a losing battle to maintain civility within the raucous 17-candidate Republican primary.

He fought with the networks over perceived anti-Republican bias during debates. He handled Mr. Trump’s repeated complaints about poor treatment from the party, then beat back talk of a third-party candidacy after Mr. Trump clinched the nomination.

“You can’t argue with the fact that he had an incredibly difficult situation that he had to deal with within the party,” said former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, who also ran for the GOP nomination this year. “I mean, it was a revolution within the party that occurred, and he managed it, and he managed it successfully, brought all the ships safely into port and across the finish line, whatever you want to say, and was able to hold it all together. So I give him high marks, and obviously Donald Trump thinks so too. That is why he is where he is.”

Mr. Priebus learned of the importance of strong party operations during his time in Wisconsin. As the youngest ever head of the state GOP, he built a data and operational infrastructure that put the party in a position to take advantage of the 2010 Republican wave.

Not only was Mr. Walker elected governor, but Republicans picked up both houses of the state legislature. A year later Mr. Priebus began the first of his record three terms as RNC chief.

‘It’s the beer’

His rise coincided with those of Mr. Walker and Mr. Ryan, three Wisconsin guys who came up together in state politics before exploding onto the national scene. Only a few years separate them: Mr. Walker is the oldest at 49, Mr. Priebus the youngest at 44.

By all accounts, their bond remains tight. One reason: They’ve never run against each other, even though both Mr. Ryan and Mr. Walker were seen as shortlist presidential prospects in 2016. Mr. Walker ran; Mr. Ryan didn’t.

“Reince Priebus is a longtime friend and bold leader whose proven effectiveness has led to historic Republican victories across the country,” said Mr. Walker. “Republicans in Wisconsin are continuing to demonstrate the power of conservative reforms that are transforming states and will now put our country back on track.”

That three Wisconsin Republicans have achieved national party prominence has long elicited some head-scratching given that the state is far from a conservative hotbed, only recently trending purple after years of Democratic dominance.

It’s not the water — or even the cheese. “While some might wonder what’s in our water, it’s the beer,” Mr. Walker quipped.

As it turned out, the hard knocks of cheesehead politics came as excellent preparation for Mr. Priebus in 2016.

He bent but didn’t break as he navigated a primary process strewn with pitfalls. His critics said he was too soft and prone to avoid conflict, but he also avoided the perception that the RNC had rigged the system, a charge that would bring down Ms. Schultz after the release of hacked emails showing her staff working against Sen. Bernard Sanders.

Faced with an undisciplined front-runner, Mr. Priebus distanced the party from Mr. Trump’s gaffes but also embraced the billionaire businessman after he won the nomination, rejecting calls from prominent conservatives to cut him loose and let him run without the RNC’s help.

Perhaps most important was the turnout operation Mr. Priebus built after watching his party lose what they’d thought was a winnable 2012 presidential election.

“Everyone expected we were going to win, and we didn’t,” said Phil Cox, a party operative who was executive director of the Republican Governors Association for four years. “So they did an autopsy report, and the most important pieces of that they implemented, and I would say Reince recognized very clearly what they RNC can and should do, as a national party, and he invested in infrastructure, he invested in data, invested in our grass roots, and that paid tremendous dividends for us on Election Day.”

Steve Duprey, a member of the RNC from New Hampshire, said Mr. Priebus also managed to adjust on the fly, working around Mr. Trump.

“This year we have a candidate who said I don’t have a traditional campaign infrastructure. I need the RNC to do all that in addition to everything else they do. And he did it, I think, masterfully,” Mr. Duprey said. “I think he will go down as one of the most successful chairs in modern history.”

The path doesn’t necessarily get any smoother for Mr. Priebus as the president-elect moves to enact an ambitious agenda, one that deviates from that of many Republicans on issues such as free trade.

That’s also where Mr. Priebus’ experience in the pocket could come in handy.

“Trump certainly appears to be ready to use his bully pulpit, but to actually accomplish things in Washington usually requires legislation, bureaucratic rule-making, personnel appointments,” Mr. Franklin said. “That’s why I think Priebus could turn out to be really important.”

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