Will Priebus Destroy The Republican Party?
Decisions by the RNC chairman from Wisconsin could fatally wound the party.
Wisconsin’s Reince Priebus made history in January 2015 by winning a third term as national chairman of the Republican Party. Yet his leadership could end up leaving the party disastrously divided by Donald Trump. Some are questioning whether the party can survive.
The reality is that Priebus has been wrong an awful lot of times. In 2012, though most polls and all poll aggregators showed an advantage for incumbent President Barack Obama, Preibus was bullish about the chances of his challenger Mitt Romney. Preibus predicted Romney would carry Florida, Virginia, Wisconsin and Iowa, all states Romney lost.
And this wasn’t just sunny salesmanship. Priebus seemed to be among the many Republicans living in a bubble who adamantly insisted the polls were biased because they assumed too large a Democratic turnout. He blasted “a narrative out there that I just think is blatantly uninformed, which is the fact that the Democrats have this great ground game. I think we’re going to crush the Democrats on the ground. I just don’t think they’ve got a very good ground game. I’ve looked through it, I’ve seen it. It’s all smoke and mirrors.”
After the election, which had exactly the sort of Democratic turnout the polls predicted, Priebus took it all back: “our ground game was insufficient… we were behind in both data and digital; and our primary and debate process needed improvement.”
To his credit, Priebus has taken steps to improve the Republican ground game. But Romney’s loss wasn’t just about technical mistakes; it was also about what the party stood for. As a report Priebus commissioned after the election concluded: “It is imperative that the RNC changes how it engages with Hispanic communities to welcome in new members of our Party…” In addition, the party “must be committed to building a lasting relationship within the African American community year-round, based on mutual respect and with a spirit of caring.”
But while a small number of Republican politicians were open to immigration reform, which might have sent a positive signal to Hispanics, the party gradually snapped back into a virulent anti-amnesty posture, led by Trump, who accused Mexico of sending rapists and drug dealers to the United States. One could hardly imagine a message more vehemently at odds with the post-election report Priebus had commissioned.
Priebus has frequently said its not his job to tell candidates what to say or think, that his job is merely to do the best to elect the ultimate nominee of the party. In reality, he has stepped in at times to try and monitor the message and it’s been revealing how he’s handled that.
After Trump’s Mexican rapists comment, Priebus made a phone call to Trump urging him to tone it down. But a less-extreme version of that message would still blatantly contradict the report Priebus championed urging Republicans to woo Hispanics.
A month later it was clear why Preibus wasn’t condemning Trump. He characterized the GOP front runner’s message this way: “It’s raw and I think it’s real and I think that people are upset with government, I think they’re upset with both parties…Trump’s tapping into that. I actually think it could be quite good for our party because I think what you’re seeing is a lot of people people that were frustrated with politics are saying, ‘Well maybe I’ve got an outlet here.’ And if they’re coming and tuning into our debate tomorrow night and getting involved in our party I think that that ultimately could be very helpful.”
In short, it didn’t matter if the message was hateful if that meant getting new recruits to the party. After Trump suggested a ban on all Muslim immigrants, Priebus said this: “I don’t agree. We need to aggressively take on radical Islamic terrorism but not at the expense of our American values.”
But Priebus continued to champion Trump as a man who could expand the party, less than a month later saying this: “I’m not one of these people that think that Donald Trump can’t win a general election. I actually think there is a huge crossover appeal there to people that are disengaged politically that he speaks to.… Trump taps into the culture. Some people in politics don’t get it, don’t understand it, are frustrated by it. It doesn’t matter. He does.”
And when Republican congressional leaders Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell condemned Trump’s failure to immediately distance himself from David Duke and the KKK, Priebus had nothing to say. That might seem surprising given his 2013 report urging the party to build “a lasting relationship with the African American community year-round, based on mutual respect and with a spirit of caring.”
One of the technical fixes by Priebus after 2012 and its long primary with GOP opponents beating up on each other was a reduction of the primary season and its number of debates and the creation of more winner-take-all state primaries to speed up the process. Many have criticized this for making it almost impossible for the Republicans to stop Trump.
But there’s no evidence Priebus wants Trump stopped or that he’s concerned the GOP will become rebranded as a virulently racist party. He is overseeing a revolt by party stalwarts like Romney and McConnell, who says the party’s Senate candidates will run away from Trump, and by numerous influential party members who say they will not vote for Trump if he’s nominated.
Priebus might have acted earlier to head off the Trump bandwagon. Had ads run earlier about Trump’s con artist businesses like Trump University, another candidate might have emerged to take the lead. But the reaction by Romney and others has probably come too late to stop Trump.
As a result, “Priebus could see his party suffer in dramatic ways,” as the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s Craig Gilbert has written. “One is by waging a civil war over Trump, ensuring one side of that fight will walk away in disgust and leaving the party’s future under a massive cloud. Two is if a Trump nomination leads the party to a crushing defeat in November, dragging down GOP candidates for other offices. Three is whatever long-term damage Trump does to the party’s demographic imperative to expand its support among nonwhite voters, especially Latinos.”
Priebus is taking a huge gamble to win the pot of electoral votes this November. Wisconsin was the birthplace of the Republican Party. Will it take a leader from Wisconsin to destroy it?
Easily the most laughable analysis of the Trump phenomenon is by the Journal Sentinel’s Christian Schneider. He argues it is caused by mischief-making Democrats who want to see the Republicans nominate a loser. Does he offer exit poll information or any hard evidence whatsoever to prove his point? Nope.
Schneider has never operated as a journalist, just as a spin artist for the Republican Party. But in this case his fantasy is way out of touch even with the party his columns are meant to serve. That he functions as the only regular political commentator for the state’s largest newspaper is truly embarrassing.