We had dome doubts along the way but when it came down to it, Reince Preibus came through in spades. The RNC chairman spent years — and tens of millions of dollars — quietly building the machine that paved the way for Trump’s upset win.
The cast of characters behind Donald Trump changed repeatedly during the course of his improbable presidential campaign as the rookie candidate struggled to strike the balance between Republican politician and anti-establishment crusader, but one person remained constant: Reince Priebus.
And now, the Republican National Committee chairman, whose efforts to rein in Trump at times made him the butt of jokes, is getting a lot of the credit for helping the president-elect pull off the most shocking upset in modern political history.
On Wednesday, Priebus was being widely discussed by Trump insiders as a likely candidate for White House chief of staff, though RNC insiders said he would be a shoo-in for an unprecedented fourth consecutive two-year term at the party’s helm, if he wanted it. One cracked that Trump might reward Priebus by nominating him to be ambassador to Greece.
And even some of his Republican critics were grudgingly acknowledging the impact of a decision by Priebus — which drew criticism at the time — to redirect spending away from TV ads and to ground operations.
The RNC’s get-out-the-vote infrastructure was by far the most robust in the party’s history, consisting of 315 field offices staffed by 7,600 paid employees and fellows who knocked on 24 million doors and logged 26 million phone calls. Without the RNC operation, Trump’s ground game would have been dwarfed by that of his Democratic opponent Hillary Clinton, since his campaign invested relatively little in field staff.
For instance, as of the beginning of September, Trump’s campaign had only one field office in the pivotal state of Florida versus Clinton’s 51. The RNC, by contrast, by Election Day had 62 offices and 1,173 paid staff and organizers in the Sunshine State, which Trump narrowly carried.
Priebus “deserves credit,” said one Trump campaign official, who at times had questioned the national party’s commitment to Trump. “There was some general distrust of the RNC, fair or unfair,” the official said.
Priebus won over some skeptics in Trump’s campaign by remaining neutral in the primary even as the GOP establishment turned sharply against Trump, and then won over still others by forging a close relationship with the Trump campaign even as tensions sometimes flared, said two campaign sources.
When the billionaire real estate developer’s campaign appeared to be spiraling towards a landslide loss during a dreadful summertime stretch, Priebus rejected calls from Republican insiders to redirect funding away from Trump to instead save down ballot Republicans.
Priebus maintained daily contact with Trump throughout the campaign, trying to coach the candidate to be more disciplined on the stump — conversations that sometimes yielded reports of RNC frustration over Trump’s penchant for controversy.
“Despite being ridiculed and criticized by some quarters, the chair stood by his nominee — defended him, counseled him and helped him — all the attributes that many in Washington lack,” said veteran GOP strategist Chris LaCivita.
Indeed, over the course of the campaign, though, the RNC chairman and his candidate appeared to have formed a genuine personal bond, said the campaign sources. Priebus was among the few Trump intimates to travel with the candidate aboard his plane over multi-day stretches and, by the end of the campaign, the chairman was introducing Trump at some of his mega-rallies.
During Trump’s victory speech in the wee hours of Wednesday, the president-elect went out of his way to pooh-pooh reports of tension and to praise Priebus.
“I never had a bad second with him. He’s an unbelievable star,” Trump said, imploring Priebus to address the crowd. As Priebus approached the mic, Trump riffed “they can’t call you a superstar, Reince, unless we win, because you can’t be called a superstar — like Secretariat — if Secretariat came in second, Secretariat would not have that big, beautiful bronze bust at the track at Belmont.”
The RNC declined to make Priebus available for an interview for this story.
But on Wednesday afternoon, some of Priebus’s top RNC aides — past and present — held a conference call with reporters to make the case that Priebus’s ground game and data surge was a big risk that brought intense criticism, but ultimately paid off.
“Nights like last night don’t happen by accident, and they don’t happen overnight. All of the credit goes to Chairman Priebus who, after the 2012 election, had the courage to stop and ask some really hard questions,” said Mike Shields, a former RNC chief of staff who helped orchestrate the committee’s strategic shift away from television spending and toward ground operations.
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