Party bosses are not known for their itchy Twitter fingers. But Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus didn’t hesitate when he fired off a run-on sentence on May 3, just minutes after Texas Senator Ted Cruz had shocked the political universe by suspending his presidential campaign after the Indiana primary.
It went like this: “@realDonaldTrump will be the presumtive @GOP nominee, we all need to unite and focus on defeating @HillaryClinton #NeverClinton”
The misspelled fifth word gave it away. This was a rare moment of consolidation in the Republican nomination race, and Priebus, who later corrected the error, rushed to freeze it.
It has been a very long year for Reinhold “Reince” Richard Priebus, a 44-year-old Wisconsin native. For months, his carefully laid plans to broaden the party’s appeal with young and minority voters had been undercut by Donald Trump’s unstoppable surge. For most of that time, even as the party cracked open, Priebus knew his job was to put his head down and trudge forward, smiling through the storm. “Something I’ve picked up from church is that unity makes the impossible possible and division makes the possible impossible,” Priebus told TIME on April 29. “Reminding the party that unity is the only pathway to victory, especially in a presidential year for us, is a constant I have to drill into everybody’s head.”
Priebus has a lot of drilling still to do. No sooner had Cruz suspended his campaign than former aides to the last two Republican nominees were on social media posting “I’m with her,” the online slogan of Hillary Clinton. Conservative journalists shared screenshots of their party-registration changes. Weeks earlier, Priebus had vowed that the party would not get behind any candidate until he secured the 1,237 delegates needed to claim the nomination. “‘Almost’ only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades,” he told his members. But that was a long time ago in this campaign. After Indiana, Trump’s delegate total came to only 1,053. It was time to pick a winner.
The role of party chair leaves much to be desired. In good years, you try to stay out of sight and let others get the credit. In bad ones, you just take the blame. On paper, the job comes down to raising money, signing paychecks and stroking egos while serving the wills of elected officials and donors. And now that Trump is the presumptive nominee, a delicate ballet between the party elders and the insurgent is about to begin. How it ends will owe much to Priebus’ instincts and temperament. “I don’t take a backseat role to a candidate,” he told TIME in his oak-paneled office on Capitol Hill, where he keeps the chair that Clint Eastwood disastrously conversed with at the 2012 Republican convention. “Any campaign operative who thinks they run the convention will be sadly mistaken.”
The morning after the Indiana primary, Priebus notched another win. Ohio Governor John Kasich quickly suspended his campaign, a move that several sources said Priebus had encouraged. More consolidation will be needed. Because even as Trump clinches the nomination in Cleveland, he will appear before a body of delegates who are openly disdainful of the candidate’s rhetoric, policies and tactics. Though Cruz has suspended his campaign, Cruz delegates are almost certain to fill the crucial committees that decide convention rules, platform and credentials. Floor fights are inevitable, which means it will fall to Priebus to try and hold his struggling party together while its differences spill out on national television for a few nights. “Reince has extraordinary authority this time that an RNC chairman has not had in my lifetime,” says Mike Duncan, who chaired the party during the 2008 election.
Maybe it was the view from his penthouse suite, 36 floors above the turquoise Florida surf, or the fact that he had decided to skip a pivotal meeting of the 56-member rules committee, taking place then in the windowless hotel ballroom. But for a moment in late April, Priebus looked like he was actually enjoying himself. “Sally always reminds me not to carry the burden of things I don’t control,” Priebus said, referencing the woman he married 17 years ago, after taking her on a first date in high school to a Lincoln Day dinner. “That’s important advice.”
Downstairs at the RNC spring meeting, a plot against him had been brewing, spurred by two dissident committeemen who offered a motion to change the rules of the July convention to gut the power of the presiding officer, a role Priebus is likely to oversee. “It just so happens that those two individuals are very close friends and I consider them friends, but in this particular case, it was made very clear to them that I couldn’t have amendments come out of the rules committee this week, and ultimately it didn’t,” he explains, with a smile. The final vote: 54-2. From his hotel suite, the chairman carried the day. “It wasn’t even close.”
Priebus’ clout as the top Republican has been unchallenged since he won the chairmanship on the seventh ballot. He proceeded to turn a financially moribund party into a technological innovator and fundraising juggernaut. After the 2012 loss by Mitt Romney, Priebus commissioned an autopsy to find out what had gone wrong. The report called on the party to embrace comprehensive immigration reform, adjust its tone on same-sex marriage and escalate its outreach to women, blacks and Latinos. Otherwise, the authors warned, the GOP would become a regional party, doomed to lose the White House for years. “We have to be about perfect to win. The Democrats need to be good,” Priebus likes to say.
Trump wasn’t buying. Instead, he has rejected pretty much the entire Priebus prescription, promising mass deportation and Muslim bans and issuing a steady stream of sexist language that has 70% of American women registering disapproval in polls. Priebus’ friends in the party have grumbled that he should have done more to block Trump’s path, and some have even advised him to resign. Trump at times has fired rockets of his own. “Reince Priebus should be ashamed of himself,” Trump pounded, after his campaign was outmaneuvered in the delegate-selection process in several states.
With a Midwestern calm, Priebus has weathered his defeats and continued his outreach to Trump. (The two men have talked regularly since last summer.) “I don’t think anyone else could have done more or better,” Priebus says. As for resignation, he adds, “I tend to put stupid opinions in the stupid bucket.”
Priebus has his own theory on why party unity has gone haywire. At a time of national anger, too many people, candidates included, have found ways to promote themselves by magnifying differences. “Division is profit,” he laments, citing cable-news ratings and the divisive fundraising solicitations that have sought to tap the bitter national mood. “There is no money in unity.”
With those physics controlling his party, he has no choice but to press on, unbowed. Behind the scenes, he has repeatedly tried to keep Trump on message, warning in a private meeting at the RNC headquarters in April that his rhetoric could have disastrous consequences in the fall, according to people briefed on the meeting. Priebus cheered as Trump moved to professionalize his campaign and to appear more presidential, but has privately expressed frustration that the conversion hasn’t taken.
On the morning after he won Indiana, Trump predicted that party unity was near, but he didn’t say much about how it would happen. “As far as the Republican Party coming together,” Trump told TIME, “it will–maybe not 100%, but it’ll come together 99%, and the 1% I don’t want and it won’t have any impact.” Which is a reminder that Reince Priebus’ long road to Election Day has only just begun.
This appears in the May 16, 2016 issue of TIME.
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