Politically active Coloradans had better figure out how to pronounce the name of Reince Priebus as the state takes center stage in the 2012 presidential election. That’s because the Wisconsin attorney, who took over as chairman of the Republican National Committee earlier this year, plans to spend a lot of time here. (His first name starts out like the river “Rhine,” and his last name sounds like the hybrid automobile “Prius,” only with an extra consonant.)
“You’re going to see me a whole lot in Colorado,” Priebus said on Tuesday during an exclusive interview with The Colorado Statesman. “This will be my second home.”
Though he didn’t make any public appearances during his first official visit to the key swing state, Priebus, 39, spent the day meeting high-dollar donors and plotting strategy with state party officials and Republican organizers from his base at the Brown Palace Hotel.
“We just have to do a good job here as the national party of working with the state party, helping them rebuild their party, helping them build up the grassroots, the door-to-door operation, and the absentee-ballot program, all of the fundamentals that, in politics, need to be done well in order to succeed,” Priebus said shortly before a planned meeting with key Colorado Republicans at the historic hotel’s swank Churchill Bar. “That starts early, and that’s why I’m out here. We want to meet the folks — the party activists, the potential donors in Colorado, to get prepared for the 2012 election.”
Priebus isn’t just paying lip service to Colorado’s importance in the upcoming presidential election. With an evenly divided electorate — almost exactly one third of state voters are registered with both parties or unaffiliated, the closest partisan split in the nation — the battle for the state’s nine electoral votes will be hard fought and could determine the outcome, pundits and pols have said. (In 2008, President Barack Obama scored a lopsided victory over Republican nominee Sen. John McCain, only the second time a Democrat has won the state since Lyndon Johnson’s 1964 landslide.)
“There’s no question in my mind, and in any sophisticated political observer’s mind, that Colorado is going to be a battleground state in 2012,” Priebus said. “So what you’re all used to out here, get ready for another round in 2012, because Colorado’s going to be an absolute battleground in this country.”
That assessment was echoed by one of Priebus’ key cohorts in the mission to deliver Colorado. State GOP Chairman Ryan Call — who got to know Priebus in recent years when both served as legal counsel for the state and national parties, respectively — said prior to Priebus’ visit that the state party is preparing for an historic fight.
“Colorado Republicans will be working closely with our county and the national organizations,” said Call, who was scheduled to meet with Priebus during the national chairman’s visit. “We’re gearing up for what promises to be an incredibly important election, not just for presidential but also for state and legislative offices.”
Priebus, elected in January to replace the controversial former RNC chairman Michael Steele after seven rounds of balloting, said he’s achieving his stated goal of putting the national party on sound footing going into an election regularly described as the most important one in living memory.
“We have put the RNC on a sustainable path to a place where we are taking in more money than we’re spending, and we have raised more major-dollar money in the RNC in the first six months than in the previous two years combined,” he said and hastened to add that he’s “not into gossiping about the past, I’m about defeating this president and making sure he’s a one-termer.”
When Priebus — the national GOP’s legal counsel under Steele while at the same time he chaired the Wisconsin GOP — took over, the RNC was roughly $24 million in debt, but after six months at the helm he has reported consecutive months of strong fundraising and has money in the bank.
Republicans will be chasing every dollar to challenge an incumbent Priebus termed the “billion-dollar president,” referring to estimates the Obama campaign could raise and spend that much on a reelection bid. But he sounded confident that GOP donors will deliver.
“People understand that we’re running against a president who’s the Campaigner in Chief,” he said. “This is a president who’s in love with campaigning, raising money, giving speeches — these are the things he does well.” (The same day Priebus camped out in downtown Denver, First Lady Michelle Obama attended a well-heeled fundraiser in Aspen at the home of Jim and Paula Crown, whose Chicago-based family owns the Aspen Skiing Co. and other local landmarks. Tickets to the shindig went for as much as $10,000 apiece.)
RNC officials declined to reveal the names of any donors meeting with Priebus or to provide details about fundraising during his visit to the state.
Previewing a campaign already under way in Colorado — dueling ads have swept the state in recent weeks, including ones from both sides broadcast in Spanish — Priebus said voters can expect to be inundated with what he termed a clear choice.
“What will happen is we’re going to have saturation in the media, television, radio,” he said. “At the end of the day, people are going to ask themselves a very simple question, which is, are we better off today as a family than we were three or four years ago, and did this president fulfill his promises when it came to jobs, the debt and the deficit? And the answer to all those questions is no. He didn’t fulfill the most basic fundamentals of his promises, and, boy, did he deliver promises — he’s the Promiser in Chief.”
Even though a crowded field of Republicans is still jostling for the presidential nomination and a clear front-runner has yet to emerge, Priebus expressed his assurance that whoever wins the nomination will have a clear path to victory.
“Any of the alternatives right now are better than walking us into bankruptcy, as this president is trying to do,” he said. “I think we’re going to have an intelligent, viable, serious alternative to this president for the American people.”
Priebus admitted he didn’t know whether the field will soon include Texas Gov. Rick Perry — who dropped strong hints that he plans to run during an appearance in Aspen last weekend and was scheduled for a return visit to the state for a conservative conference this weekend, after press time — but predicted Republican voters will soon know what their options are.
“My suspicion is that the field will be set by Labor Day, by the end of summer — that’s my guess,” he said. Noting that former President Bill Clinton didn’t even start his campaign until autumn in 1991 — and went on to defeat an incumbent president — Priebus dismissed carping that the slate of Republican candidates is still evolving.
“I think this fixation on what the date is, if there’s enough time, I think is a little beside the point,” he said. Referring to Obama, he added, “This president is going to have to defend his record, and we will have an intelligent and articulate alternative for the American people to this president.”
The contest between Obama and the Republican nominee will be the only statewide race on Colorado’s ballot next year, an unusual occurrence Priebus said should work to the advantage of Republican congressional candidates, including a pair of freshmen lawmakers already targeted by Democrats.
Referring to Democratic legislators who last month launched campaigns against first-term Republicans U.S. Reps. Cory Gardner and Scott Tipton, Priebus suggested Obama won’t provide any coattails for Senate President Brandon Shaffer, D-Longmont, and House Minority Leader Sal Pace, D-Pueblo.
“They’re going to have a hard time,” he said. “Barack Obama is going to be on the ticket, (and) he’s going to drag the Democrats down. I’d be more worried about the Democrats that are running here in Congress than the Republicans.”
Arguing that high unemployment and a weak economy won’t do Democratic candidates any favors, Priebus added, “These Democrats are going to have to find a way to leap over the top of the top of the ticket, and there are not many instances of that in our country right now in split districts. It just doesn’t exist.”