Trump’s Shotgun Marriage to the RNC

Party chairman Reince Priebus says it's smooth sailing so far

The crowd listens as Reince Priebus, chairman of the Republican National Committee, speaks at the American Conservative Union's CPAC conference. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
The crowd listens as Reince Priebus, chairman of the Republican National Committee, speaks at the American Conservative Union's CPAC conference. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Posted May 6, 2016 at 10:03am

After months of running as the ultimate outsider, Donald Trump is about to get hitched to the icon of the GOP establishment, the Republican National Committee. How that marriage works could well depend on how much the business mogul tries to control the process.  

RNC Chairman Reince Priebus, for his part, doesn’t anticipate that Trump’s staff will come into the building and run roughshod over his organization.  

“Somebody has to issue the key card, OK?” Priebus said Friday.  

In fact, some party insiders believe the presumptive presidential nominee may be more reliant on RNC staff than other candidates, given that he doesn’t have the same kind of fundraising apparatus, voter registration efforts and get-out-the-vote operations as past White House hopefuls.  

But other operatives wonder how Trump will accept the party’s help without contradicting himself.  

“Trump largely funded his own campaign during the nomination fight and attacked his opponents for accepting donations from lobbyists and political insiders,” said Ryan Williams, an aide to Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign and now a vice president with FP1 Strategies. “He needs to either fork over hundreds of millions of dollars of his own money to fund a general election campaign or immediately start raising money from the same special interests that he once denounced.”  

[Related: GOP ‘Going to the Mattresses’]

Trump plans to fundraise, but he will need to build out the infrastructure to do so.

Transition time


There comes a time in every presidential bid when a candidate must mesh the successful campaign team that helped deliver the nomination with the party apparatus. The process is not always smooth. Sen. John McCain initially had trouble with the transition in 2008.  

This year, the Republican Party has not yet coalesced around Trump, with House Speaker Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin saying he’s not yet ready to endorse him. The New York billionaire, who has railed against the establishment, must also decide how much or how little he draws on the RNC for help.  

Trump has already tapped a former RNC official as an adviser. Rick Wiley, former campaign manager for Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s short-lived White House bid, was the political director at the RNC during the 2012 election cycle, and worked on the marriage with the Romney team.  

“Rick Wiley is an excellent operative and understands the ground game better than just about anyone in the Republican Party,” said Mike DuHaime, a partner at Mercury Public Affairs, who connected McCain’s team and the party in 2008. “He has been RNC political director, part of the Bush Victory operation [in 2000] and part of a number of very big wins over the past 15 years.”  

[Related: ‘Big Men’: Is Trump America’s Berlusconi?]

Speaking at a breakfast hosted by Politico, Priebus said that so far the interaction with the Trump staff largely resembled the 2012 experience when Romney’s campaign had two key staffers, Brian Jones and Ward Baker, in the building but did not take over operations at the RNC.  

The Manhattan businessman’s campaign announced Thursday that Steven Mnuchin, the chairman and CEO of a private investment firm, will be the national finance chairman as Trump looks to bankroll a general election campaign, likely against Hillary Clinton .  

“It’s a great privilege to be working with Mr. Trump to create a world-class finance organization to support the campaign in the general election,” Mnuchin said in a statement.

Billion dollar election


But there are signs that Trump will work with the RNC to raise cash for a race that is expected to cost $1 billion. He told The Washington Post in an interview after becoming the presumptive nominee that he intended to enter a joint fundraising agreement.  

Until the terms are announced, there will be real questions about how Trump intends to raise money going forward, having lent his campaign about $38 million in an effort to win the GOP nomination.  

And Trump will need to find personnel beyond a finance chairman.  

Williams, the former Romney adviser, said Trump would need “to build a fundraising operation from the ground up because he starts off as a nominee with absolutely no infrastructure.”  

[Related: Obama on Trump’s Bid: ‘This Is Not a Reality Show’]

Trump will also have staffers dispatched to assist with the planning for the Republican National Convention in Cleveland in July, which rather than being a contested scenario with a potential floor flight will be an opportunity to promote Trump.  

“The convention staff will begin working with the Trump campaign to bring them up to speed on the months of planning that’s been happening in Cleveland so we can unite and make the convention a success for the Republican Party and nominee,” convention spokeswoman Kirsten Kukowski said this week.  

Under Priebus, the RNC began building out the ground operation for the 2016 cycle earlier than it has in recent years — starting in the summer of 2015. The party also engaged early in the voter registration business.  

“We are able to do this because the staff we placed on the ground during the 2014 cycle never left, and they have been maintaining relationships in the community and building our volunteer base,” the RNC said last June.  

The GOP will now be working with a candidate who thrived in the primary process through name recognition and media attention, more so than through traditional outreach efforts.  

Contact Lesniewski at and follow him on Twitter @nielslesniewski.

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