How a true believer made it from Kenosha, Wis., to the White House
By CRAIG GILBERT | Milwaukee Journal Sentinel | Published: November 23, 2016
MILWAUKEE (Tribune News Service) — Until this month, Reince Priebus had one burning regret as the GOP’s longest-serving chairman.
“Unfortunately, we’ve become a party that can’t lose a midterm and can’t win a presidential,” he said in a 2014 interview. “I’m here to try to fix that.”
The election of Donald Trump not only fixed that, it brought Priebus to the pinnacle of power in Washington.
When Trump named him White House chief of staff Nov. 13, it capped a breathtaking climb for the onetime student body president at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater.
The new power broker at the heart of the Trump White House is a sociable lawyer and litigator who savors politics and can enjoy sharing a beer with a Democrat.
He’s a data-driven manager who sometimes lapses into the language of marketing and metrics when he talks about “growing” the Republican Party.
But Priebus is also an “insider” with an ideology.
He is a born-and-bred conservative who grew up idolizing Ronald Reagan and whose mantra is “Win every day, live the mission every day, wait on God’s timing and good things happen.”
As the early turbulence of the Trump transition suggests, Priebus faces immense challenges in his new job: a president with no government experience; competing White House factions; a party riven in the recent primaries; and the urgent need to adapt the skills of a party operative and fundraiser to the task of keeping a presidency on track.
His approach to decision-making is that “he talks to lots of people, he doesn’t do it by himself. He’s very inclusive, very collaborative. Once there is a plan in place, he becomes laser-focused on executing (it),” said Jeff Larson, who worked for Priebus at the Republican National Committee and managed the 2016 GOP convention.
Because of the controversy around parts of the Trump team, some inside and outside the party have invested their hopes in Priebus as a stabilizing force.
“America has no idea what we’re going to get from Donald Trump as president,” said Mike Tate, who chaired the Wisconsin Democratic Party when Priebus was the state Republican chair. Tate said he took the Priebus appointment as a positive, saying he has a “moral center.”
“Reince is a bridge builder and I think he will help President Trump bring people together. We need the country to heal,” said Henry Barbour, an RNC member from Mississippi.
Priebus, 44, grew up in Kenosha County, Wis., historically Democratic blue-collar turf that went Republican this year for the first time since 1972.
His father was a pro-military, pro-Reagan union electrician. (Reince is short for Reinhold, reflecting his father’s German heritage).
His mother, born in the Greek community in Khartoum in the Sudan, met her husband, a Wisconsin native, while he served in the U.S. Army in Ethiopia.
Reagan “was looked up to and revered by all of my relatives in Greece,” Priebus said in a 2009 interview with the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel — especially his very pro-American grandfather, an avid supporter of the conservative New Democracy party in Greece.
“I can remember in third grade having mock elections, and being the campaign chairman for Ronald Reagan,” said Priebus.
When Priebus ran in 2011 to be leader of the Republican National Committee, he told RNC members that “our chairman has to be an outspoken, unabashed conservative.” He promised to “work like an absolute dog.”
When the five candidates for chair were asked how many guns they have at home, he said five. (Another candidate said 16).
Asked who his hero was besides Reagan, he said, “Lincoln.”
Asked where he gets his news, he included the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, and the op-ed pages of The Wall Street Journal.
Asked his favorite book, he said, “The Reagan Diaries.”
Priebus, who promised to be a “no drama” chairman, won on the seventh ballot. Among those he defeated was the sitting chair, Michael Steele, whom he once advised and supported but who was dogged by controversy and left the RNC more than $20 million in debt.
“I am so blessed,” he told the Republicans after the vote.
“My first date with my wife (Sally) was a Lincoln Day dinner with (GOP congressmen) Henry Hyde and Jim Sensenbrenner, which will tell you a little something about me,” he said.
“He is not a stick-in-the-mud conservative,” his close friend, House Speaker Paul Ryan, said of him back in 2009. “He’s a younger conservative who believes in expanding the base.”
His only bid for office ended in defeat when he lost a state Senate race in 2004 by four points.
“Afterwards, we sat down and we talked about it. He’s like, ‘Should I run again in four years, or should I be more involved in the political party?’” said Wisconsin Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, a close friend since college. “And he kind of came to the conclusion that he loved the political side as much as the policy side.”
Priebus rose from county chair to district chair to Wisconsin GOP chair in 2007, before enduring the Republican nightmare of the 2008 Obama landslide, when Arizona Sen. John McCain lost the state by 14 points.
He jokingly complained the election was called so quickly that reporters phoned him for comment one minute after the polls closed.
“Can you at least let me have one beer?” he pleaded.
In the GOP wave of 2010, his party enjoyed its best Wisconsin election since the 1930s, gaining the governor’s office, the Legislature, a U.S. Senate and House seat.
Priebus became a fundraising workhorse at the RNC, eager to spend the money on better data, technology, turnout models and year-round community organizing.
In an interview, he complained “our party has divorced itself from American culture.” He said it had become a “U-Haul trailer of cash for a nominee that buys 30 second ads” — a model “we’re trying to blow out the door.”
RNC member Barbour said Priebus “made a big bet on organization. We spent about five times more on data and digital. … He did the hard work before the (2016) election.”
His Wisconsin roots and relationships left a stamp.
In college, Priebus was roommates with Vos and Andy Speth, who became Paul Ryan’s chief of staff. They and their friends were dubbed the “Whitewater Mafia.”
“Reince was a mini-me of exactly who he is today” — deeply driven, with an abiding interest in politics, said Vos.
Later, he was part of the Cheesehead Revolution, a label for the rising Wisconsin trio of Priebus, Gov. Scott Walker and Ryan, the party’s 2012 vice presidential nominee.
The Republican model in Wisconsin was about audacious conservative policy-making, unleashing massive GOP turnouts and “playing well in the sandbox” (as Priebus put it) with tea party activists and grass-roots conservatives.
“People are asking what’s in the water in Wisconsin?” he told a group of home-state Republicans in 2012. “The better question would be, what’s in the beer in Wisconsin?”
Trump’s rise this year threatened to derail Wisconsin’s GOP stars. The New York developer drove Walker from the presidential race, sparred frequently with Ryan, and undermined the Latino outreach that Priebus espoused.
The RNC chair took flak from Trump’s GOP critics for not trying to stop his nomination. His defenders said he did what a party chairman had to do and let the voters decide.
“All the carping about jettisoning the Trump campaign — he never, ever, ever thought of (doing) that,” said Larson.
“All throughout this time, when people were doubting Donald Trump, not a single time that he and I talked in person, or talked on the phone, or texted, did he ever say a negative thing about Donald Trump. He was always loyal, because he’s the nominee,” said Vos.
Trump’s victory not only elevated Priebus, but cemented his friend Ryan’s hold on the speakership.
Frictions aside, Trump and the GOP Congress need each other, said Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, R-Wis.
Priebus “obviously has got Trump’s confidence, and he is the bridge (with) Republican senators and representatives,” said Sensenbrenner. “You could accuse Reince of facilitating an arranged marriage, but hopefully this arranged marriage is going to work out.”
Mary Spicuzza of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel contributed to this report.
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