Reince Priebus Tightens Grip Over GOP Campaign Apparatus

By Neil King Jr.

RNC Chief’s Debate Push Wins Support, as He Seeks Backing for Earlier Convention

WSJ’s Aaron Zitner says RNC Chairman Reince Priebus is trying to build a foundation for the 2016 presidential campaign while trying to get the six new seats needed to take control of the Senate in 2014.

Nine months after his party’s latest presidential-election loss, Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus is pushing to rebuild the GOP’s election machinery and to exert control over a nominating process that he says was “a total disaster.”

The party chief got a boost Friday when the RNC unanimously backed his proposal to bar CNN and NBC from hosting any 2016 Republican primary debates if they proceed with plans to air programs devoted to former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton next year.

“We’re done putting up with this nonsense,” Mr. Priebus said in remarks that drew a standing ovation and a few war whoops from party activists gathered in Boston.

It remains unclear what powers the RNC has to make sure candidates and state parties adhere to the ban, which was provoked by its belief that the programs would cast Mrs. Clinton—widely seen as the leading Democratic contender in 2016—in a favorable light. Units of both CNN and NBC said in statements that their programs were in their early stages and that conclusions couldn’t be drawn about their contents.

Mr. Priebus said in an interview that conservative outrage over the planned Clinton programs has dovetailed with his pitch to sharply curtail the number of debates in 2016, a key part of his larger quest to reorder how the next GOP nominee will be picked. With what appears to be fairly wide support among party leaders, Mr. Priebus wants to hold the next nominating convention in June, instead of late August, allowing the nominee to plunge more quickly into the general-election phase of the campaign. Mr. Priebus also is eyeing a potential revamping of the state-by-state election calendar to include a series of regional primaries, making the process less drawn-out.

The spat with the networks, Mr. Priebus said, has “played a significant role in me making the case to our party as to why we need to be in control and why somebody like me has to be the one who stands up and says, ‘Enough’s enough.’ ” Many party leaders believe the long series of debates in the latest primary race exposed the candidates to too many potential errors as well as questions from what they view as antagonistic media.

Conceding that the RNC was widely outmaneuvered by the Democrats last year, the 41-year-old is moving briskly to roll out what many consider the party’s most aggressive campaign operation to date, especially so early in an election cycle.

Reince Priebus, center, shown onstage Thursday at the Republican National Committee summer meeting in Boston, is moving to roll out an aggressive campaign operation.

The RNC has dispatched nearly 150 active campaign operatives across the country, a number that it says will more than double by the end of the year. To Virginia, the RNC has assigned five Asian field staff—of Indian, Vietnamese, Korean and Filipino descent—to help target voters in next year’s Senate election, more than Mitt Romney had devoted to Asian voters in the state at the peak of his campaign.

“We have the opportunity now to build something the RNC has never had, which is a year-round, national campaign infrastructure,” Mr. Priebus said.

Democrats say the party will have trouble winning voters as long as it remains uncommitted to an overhaul of immigration law, a priority of Hispanics, and is on record opposing gay marriage. “The simple truth is that while the RNC is focused on tactics, the fundamentals of the Republican Party are broken, and the only way to fix it is by changing their policies,” said Democratic National Committee spokesman Michael Czin.

That the former Wisconsin party boss still has his perch is itself unusual. No national head of either party in the modern era has retained that seat after a loss in the presidential election. Some now expect him to keep the job through the 2016 election, which would make him the longest-serving GOP chairman in nearly 30 years.

Picked to head the party in 2011, Mr. Priebus defends the group’s lackluster showing last year by pointing out that he inherited an organization with just 80 employees, $26 million in debt “and two credit cards that were both suspended for nonpayment.”

The chairman has poured most of his energies into raising money—he said he spends five hours a day on donor calls—and into building out the party’s infrastructure, including an aggressive, state-by-state outreach to minority voters.

The party has now cleared away its debts while raising $40 million this year through June, compared with $31 million raised by the DNC, which still owes $18 million to creditors, according to federal election records. The GOP ended June with $7 million more in cash than the Democrats had, the federal records show.

Mr. Priebus has had his setbacks. In March he released a searing postmortem on the November election that called for the party to embrace a comprehensive overhaul of immigration laws and to become more “inclusive and welcoming” on social issues, which was widely read as a call for the party to play down its opposition to gay marriage.

Evangelicals rebuffed the call for a softer social posture, while the RNC weeks later voted unanimously to re-emphasize the party’s adherence to traditional marriage. Congressional Republicans are divided on the immigration front.

Some Republicans say there is reason to be skeptical of Mr. Priebus’s promises to revamp the primary process. “We have worked on that for years, and it’s a long way from actually happening,” said Saul Anuzis, a GOP activist and former RNC committeeman in Michigan. “This is always slow and incremental.”

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