Reince Priebus has turned the RNC around

Gentry Collins Partner, Collins Anderson Philp Public Affairs
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One year ago today, I left my job as Republican National Committee political director and took the unusual step of making public the dire financial and operating conditions at the RNC. I took that step because I believed the RNC had an integral role to play in winning elections in 2012, that the wave election of 2010 masked some of the shortcomings of the committee, and that members of the committee had generally been kept in the dark by leadership.

The alarm bell I rang (denied by party leadership at the time) unfortunately proved to be true. Debt exceeded projections, ultimately topping $25 million — some $10 million in excess of the lines of credit authorized by RNC members. National Committee relationships with major donors withered almost entirely. Cost-of-funds hit a modern high, and transfers to state parties and ground game programs hit a modern low. And cuts to key field and data programs risked eliminating the institutional knowledge and targeting capability that took so much human and financial capital to build over decades.

In other words, the wins in 2010 should be credited to well-run campaigns, tea-party enthusiasm, and center-right independent expenditure operations instead of Republican National Committee leadership. We got away with it in a wave-type midterm, but I was — and remain — convinced we could not get away with it in a competitive presidential cycle.

Making recovery more difficult, many began to wonder whether the major party committees are still relevant in today’s post-Citizens United campaign finance environment. It is certainly true that party committee influence has been waning on both sides of the aisle since McCain-Feingold further limited political free speech following the 2002 election cycle.

Democrats quickly adapted to the post-McCain-Feingold era, with outside Democrat groups outspending outside Republican groups almost 2 to 1 ($121.3 million to $68.5 million) in the 2004 cycle.

The center-right coalition began to catch up with Democrats’ third-party groups during the 2010 cycle. American Crossroads, American Action Network, Americans for Prosperity, and non-federal party committees like RGA and RSLC began to successfully emulate — and in fact eclipse — the Democrat groups that began the IE rush several cycles ago.

American Crossroads, the leading conservative IE operation, raised and spent some $70 million last cycle and has set a goal of $240 million this cycle. With conservative luminaries (and highly successful operatives) like Karl Rove, Haley Barbour, and Mike Duncan helping run the operation, many leading Republicans expect them to succeed.

These factors further the argument that the major party committees are less and less relevant in contemporary American politics. Independent expenditure groups are clearly a major driver of our politics today, and are an important part of an overall strategy for victory in 2012. But they cannot complete the job alone, and they cannot replace key functions of a healthy national party.

Among other functions, only the RNC can coordinate with federal campaigns, only the RNC can run the Presidential Trust (the millions in coordinated funds the major party committees can provide their presidential nominees), only the RNC can run a coordinated ground game, only the RNC can run the National Convention, and only the RNC can maximize data collection and analysis efforts.

Reince Priebus’s election as RNC chairman last January left me wondering what kind of party we would have. Reince is a good man, and was a very effective state party chairman. But he had little experience on the national political stage and few relationships with key donors around the country. And I knew what a mess he was walking into.

So one year into the cycle and one year away from election 2012, how is Chairman Priebus doing? Is the RNC still in turmoil, or can Republicans expect a healthy national party operation in the fight to defeat Barack Obama, win the Senate, and preserve the House majority?

Under Chairman Priebus’s leadership, the committee has returned to a no-nonsense posture. No exotic trips, no made-for-cable-TV messaging problems, a lean (and extremely accomplished) staff, and a relentless focus on amassing the resources needed to right the committee’s finances and prepare for the epic battle just ahead in 2012.

The evidence? In the 10 weeks leading up to Chairman Priebus’s election, the RNC averaged 1,286 donors per day. In the 10 weeks following his election, the RNC averaged 4,562 donors per day.

The RNC has raised more than 400% more major donor dollars than it had at this point in 2010 — notwithstanding the fact there is less urgency in the electorate today than there was during the health care debate last cycle. In fact, Chairman Priebus’s RNC has already doubled the major donor dollars raised in the entire two-year 2010 cycle.

Major donor clubs have grown by leaps and bounds. Regents (RNC’s largest donors at $61,600 for the cycle) have grown from 37 in 2010 to more than 275 today. Team 100 donors (annual maxouts at $30,800 for the year) have increased from 36 to more than 150. Eagles ($15,000+) have grown from 27 to more than 230. And that’s just the first 10 months of Priebus’s term, which are historically the most difficult.

So how does this compare with previous presidential cycles? Year-to-date this is the highest major donor total raised in an off year ($15,000 and above). And consider this: In 2003 (the year before George W. Bush stood for re-election), the president’s party outraised the DNC every single month. Already in 2011 (the year before Barack Obama stands for re-election), the RNC has outraised the president’s party twice (March and August).

Cash balances at the RNC have steadily risen this year, while debt load has steadily been whittled down. The RNC is on track to be either out of debt or have enough cash on hand to cover all debts by the end of this year. Relationships with major donors continue to improve and grow. And it is becoming clear the RNC is building a finance network that will be able to fund the critical operations required to maximize chances for victory in 2012.

While space restrictions here don’t allow enough elaboration, the RNC has played a leadership role in research and messaging (think Solyndra), establishing a cutting-edge data arrangement, ensuring the integrity of the 2012 Tampa Convention, and preparing for a turnout program that finally adjusts to the early voting realities faced by candidates and state parties today.

Chairman Priebus inherited a desperately difficult but intensely important job. At the midpoint of the cycle, his performance has earned my confidence and trust. There are certainly hurdles and challenges in the months ahead, but all Republicans can be optimistic that this RNC will have the resources needed to elect a new president in 2012.

And then the real work begins.

Gentry Collins is a partner at Collins Anderson Philp Public Affairs. He is the former political director of the Republican National Committee.