RNC Chief Fights to Rebuild Fundraising Machine

Posted March 12, 2011 at 9:13am

New Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus is moving urgently to rebuild the committee into a fundraising powerhouse, trying to position the party to be able to withstand President Barack Obama’s expected $1 billion re-election campaign juggernaut.

During an interview Friday with Roll Call, Priebus discussed RNC fundraising strategy and goals for 2012 and the challenges he faces in the wake of a near-abandonment of the committee by small, medium and major donors during former Chairman Michael Steele’s administration.

Frequently using words such as “disaster” and criticizing Steele’s tenure, Priebus told Roll Call the past two years have “completely destroyed” trust and credibility with major donors.

Priebus is assembling a national finance team from scratch and plans for the RNC to be debt-free and flush with at least $10 million in the bank by year’s end. To restore trust with the national donor community, Priebus canceled his own election victory reception to save money, ordered the RNC to dump two of its three leased cars as soon as possible, and put an end to high-end travel perks such as car service transportation and expensive, brand-name hotels.

“So I’m trying to get rid of this Lincoln Town Car,” he said. “It frustrates me that we have a Lincoln Town Car in this building. I don’t know why — maybe it’s because I’m from Wisconsin. I just find it to be really bizarre.”

He questioned other bills left on his desk.

“To have $8 million owed to vendors on top of the $15 million you were authorized [in a line of credit], that’s what breaks your back,” he said. “And the bills keep coming.”

One of them, he said, was a year-old $80 entrance fee from the committee’s softball league.

“We’re not only paying the softball fee of $80, we’re paying the softball fees of last year. It doesn’t end.”

Priebus acknowledged that the RNC faces additional challenges, not the least of which is overhauling the committee’s once-vaunted ground game operation into a modern operation capable of competing with Obama’s trailblazing political organization, which includes the Democratic National Committee and his Chicago-based re-election team. But for Priebus, it all starts with turning the RNC into a cash machine — made clear by his hands-on approach to fundraising versus his delegation of other committee responsibilities.

“We need to raise more money; we need to have the resources available to be able to spend an enormous amount of money on all of the states,” Priebus said a day after returning from a multicity fundraising trip to Florida and two days before heading to New York to woo banking and finance industry donors. “We need to set up a [get-out-the-vote] operation that is fully funded by our donors and a [GOTV] operation that can actually make an impact on the ground in all these states.”

Although it is well-known that the RNC had lost its reputation as the gold standard of campaign committees, Priebus indicated that matters were worse than previously understood when he took over. At least since the mid-1990s, the RNC consistently outraised the DNC and both parties’ Congressional campaign committees and often outmuscled the DNC on the ground.

But as of Jan. 31, the RNC reported $2.1 million in cash on hand and a staggering $21.4 million in debt. The DNC reported a healthier cash-on-hand total of $9.1 million, with a lower though still significant debt of $16.8 million, which it incurred last year partly from its financial support of the Democratic Congressional campaign committees. The RNC could not afford to offer similar support to the GOP’s Congressional campaign committees. 

To change direction, Priebus upon his election immediately tapped a national finance transition team to reinvigorate RNC fundraising, particularly among major donors, or those individual contributors who are viewed as being able to give the legal maximum of $30,800 annually to a national party committee. That team, due to complete its work by March 31, was led by longtime but recently disenchanted RNC major donors, including Al Hoffman and Mel Sembler of Florida, Sam Fox of Missouri, and Ron Weiser of Michigan.

On April 1, Priebus hopes to introduce his new national finance chairman and the beginnings of a team of national finance co-chairmen he wants filled out by midyear to represent both individual states and broader regions of the country. Priebus declined to reveal the minimum fundraising goals he planned to set but said a finance co-chairman “might” be asked to raise $3 million annually, while someone who raised $1 million might earn a spot on the RNC “executive council.”

Raising $250,000 annually might garner a donor a spot on the national finance committee. Priebus said the goal of his fundraising strategy, which also includes a push to revamp the RNC’s direct-mail, online and telemarketing fundraising, is twofold: Put the committee in a strong cash position and send a clear signal to “our donors and the entire political community” that “the RNC is back in business.”

“Our goal is to have much of, if not almost all, of the entire debt paid off by the end of the year,” Priebus explained, “but also to have millions and millions of dollars cash on hand.”

To restore trust on Capitol Hill, the RNC chairman has launched an aggressive outreach effort to Members of Congress.

Priebus said he intends to be a regular at Senate Republican policy lunches and National Republican Congressional Committee meetings. He has asked Senators and House Members to help the RNC raise money by attending fundraisers and said the response thus far has been overwhelmingly positive. Priebus said more RNC fundraisers headlined by GOP Members are in the planning stages.

Steele was constantly under fire by Members because of a perception that he was not doing the nuts-and-bolts work of raising money and preparing the RNC to help Republicans compete on the ground in the 2010 midterm elections. Despite the historic Republican gains in that election, GOP Members said the RNC deserved little, if any, credit. The initial reviews on Priebus are positive.

Priebus, who will turn 39 this month, was elected to lead the RNC in mid-January fresh off of the success he experienced last cycle as chairman of the Wisconsin GOP — Republicans flipped the governor’s mansion, the Legislature, a Senate seat and two House seats.

Steve Peoples and Kyle Trygstad contributed to this report.