Priebus shines af­ter con­duct­ing Repub­li­can opus


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,” said Mr. Franklin. “That’s why I think Priebus could turn out to be re­ally im­por­tant.”

“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.”

— Rick San­to­rum, Penn­syl­va­nia Repub­li­can


RNC Chair­man Reince Preibus, named Pres­i­dent-elect Don­ald Trump’s chief of staff, was able to smooth over dif­fer­ences fel­low Wis­conin sons Rep. Paul D. Ryan and Gov. Scott Walker had with Mr. Trump, thus help­ing turn the state red for the first time since Pres­i­dent Rea­gan car­ried the state in 1984.

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