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Priebus: GOP Must Improve Community-Based Outreach

Maybe there’s something to this community organizing thing after all.

Republicans have regularly ridiculed President Barack Obama as a community organizer who lacks the experience to govern and manage the recovery of a struggling economy. But politically, at least, top Republicans tacitly concede that the GOP needs to emulate Obama if the party hopes to improve its prospects in the 2016 presidential election, build durable support among ethnic minorities and rehabilitate the party’s brand overall.

That was the message telegraphed by Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus in a wide-ranging interview to discuss his plans for a second two-year term at the helm of the RNC. After spending his first term focused on reviving RNC fundraising and streamlining day-to-day business activities, Priebus is prepared to spend the next two years prioritizing the improvement and modernization of the committee’s woefully outdated and overmatched voter-turnout operation.

“I think what you’re going to see us have to do, which I think is important and I think it’s about time, is to get granular and community-based in our outreach, and I think it means over a long period of time,” Priebus told CQ Roll Call late last week.

“I think that the idea of this one-year monster campaign is overwith,” Priebus continued. “And, while it’s difficult without a president, we’re going to have to do the best job we can in being community-based, probably pretty large in size and scope over a three- [to] three-and-a-half year period leading up to the presidential campaign. It’s going to help in the off-year; it’s going to help in four years.”

Priebus, who thus far is running unopposed for re-election as RNC chairman, was frank in his assessment of the party’s problems and challenges in national elections. He acknowledged that the Obama campaign’s ground game remains light-years ahead of anything the GOP is capable of fielding and was matter-of-fact that Republicans have to broaden their appeal with nonwhite voters to improve their competitiveness in presidential contests.

Gubernatorial races in Virginia and New Jersey, where Republican Gov. Chris Christie is running for re-election, as well as the 2014 midterm congressional elections, are the RNC’s immediate responsibility. Priebus said he has already met with Oregon Rep. Greg Walden, incoming chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee; and Kansas Sen. Jerry Moran, incoming chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, to discuss how the RNC can assist the campaign committees in 2014.

Priebus said he expects the RNC to act as a partner to the NRCC and NRSC and the Republican Governors Association on political messaging, fundraising and an improved voter turnout operation — “a product everyone can plug into,” Priebus said. The RNC’s intention is to complement its sister committees and prevent overlap and duplication. But Priebus’ overarching goal is to prepare the RNC and the GOP generally for the 2016 presidential election cycle.

For the ex-Wisconsin GOP chairman, that means bringing order to the presidential nominating process and the televised primary debates. Priebus wants the RNC to regulate how many debates are held, who participates, which media outlets televise them and which journalists from those outlets moderate them. Any changes or new rules that Priebus might push would have to be implemented according to RNC rules, the chairman indicated.

But it’s upgrading the RNC’s voter turnout operation that could serve as the centerpiece of the four-year plan Priebus is developing as he readies his agenda. Priebus did not sugar-coat the GOP’s deficiencies on this front compared to the Democrats, saying the RNC needs to resuscitate messaging, how it collects and analyzes data, the mechanics of its get-out-the-vote program and the time and money invested in this component of the committee’s mission.

“We need to do everything they’ve done, and we need to figure out how to do it much better,” Priebus said. “It’s not just mimicking what the Obama campaign did, but I think it’s a matter of us improving on what they did, what we did and taking it to the next level.”

Priebus said his goal is to build a rehabilitated voter-turnout operation with an on-the-ground presence that is four years in the making by the time the 2016 Republican presidential nominee is crowned. Part of the strength of Obama’s operation, as Priebus noted and the president’s re-election team said repeatedly during the 2012 campaign, was that it never folded after the 2008 election but instead continued its presence in targeted communities.

Priebus said that RNC donors and grass-roots workers are hungry for the committee to tackle this and other challenges, which include improving its fundraising, although that was the one area where it excelled during the 2012 cycle. The RNC is in the midst of an “autopsy” to figure out what went wrong in 2012 and how improvements can be made.

For Priebus, the aftermath of the 2012 elections has a much different flavor than his experience two years prior, when, as Wisconsin GOP chairman, he helped Republicans flip a Senate seat, two House seats, the governor’s mansion and the state legislature. This time, instead of celebrating historic gains, Republicans are asking hard questions about the viability of their party, and Priebus has not escaped the blame cast at many GOP leaders.

But Priebus said criticism comes with being in his position. Getting “defensive” would be counterproductive to his goal of continuing the improvements he began at the RNC two years ago and putting the GOP in a position to be successful over the next two years and win in 2016, he said. Priebus said the party’s problems are real, particularly in presidential contests, and go beyond the historic nature of the Obama White House.

“When you decide to lead the effort, you sort of also decide to own everything, too,” Priebus said. “That’s what leaders have to do — I think that’s what I have to do as chairman of the party. Instead of being defensive, my view is that it’s my responsibility to say, ‘tough,’ you’re the chairman of the party, lead the way and try to figure out what improvements we need to make.”

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