The time has come for the Democratic National Committee (“DNC”) and the Republican National Committee (“RNC”) to select the chairs of their respective political parties. For the party in power in the White House, it is a relatively straightforward process. The president names his choice and the national committee effectively ratifies the choice.
President Barack Obama picked Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman-Shultz to chair the DNC. She served as chair of the DNC from 2011 until she resigned during the 2016 Democratic National Convention. Former DNC Chair Donna Brazile has served as “acting chair” pending the election of a new DNC chair next year. Following his victory on Nov. 8, President-elect Donald J. Trump named Ronna Romney McDaniel as the next chair of the RNC. Currently, she is the chair of the Michigan Republican Party. During the 2016 presidential election, she broke with her famous uncle — former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney — and delivered Michigan as a key win for President-elect Trump.
For the Republicans, it has been a relatively straightforward process with current RNC Chair Reince Priebus undoubtedly playing an important role in the selection of his successor. By all measures, Priebus has been the most successful RNC chair in the Republican Party’s history.
Taking over a party deeply in debt, he built the party to its present political juggernaut status, winning state legislatures, governorships, the U.S. House of Representatives, the U.S. Senate, and now the White House. Starting Jan. 20, he will serve as the chief of staff to the president of the United States.
Democrats now face the arduous task that Republicans faced when Priebus took over. Rebuild a party in chaos with no obvious leader and a weak bench following a catastrophic electoral defeat.
So far, a couple of names have emerged as potential DNC chairs: Congressman Keith Ellison and Secretary of Labor Tony Perez. Others are certain to emerge. Yet, to have a meaningful chance of success in the midterm election building toward the next presidential election in 2020, Democrats may want to take a page from the Priebus playbook in deciding where and how to go from here.
Following Mitt Romney’s defeat in 2012, Priebus did not resort to blaming either the party’s nominee or even the Russians. Instead, he ordered an autopsy to zero in on exactly what happened and what Republicans needed in order to compete in the upcoming midterm election in 2014 and win in 2016.
In the end, he landed on two key components for success. First, Republicans needed a technology-based ground game capable of sustained involvement between elections touching every constituency regardless of geographic location or historical voting patterns.
Anyone watching the 2014 and 2016 election GOP ground games recognize the success he achieved. Not only did he bring in the best talent from outside the political world, he committed to using that talent year-round to build a ground operation capable of sustained community involvement through election day.
Second, Republicans needed a nomination process aimed at selecting the best candidate, not necessarily the next candidate in line for the nomination. This meant re-working the RNC rules to create a meritocracy with every candidate, regardless of pedigree or political history, having a meaningful chance to compete for the nomination.
And so, he led the effort to change the RNC nomination rules to add order, discipline, openness, and competitiveness to the process. By compressing the schedule, he made sure the length of the nomination process was not so long that the candidates inflicted irreparable injury on the eventual nominee, making election in November too difficult.
By gaining control of the debate process, he made sure that every candidate had a chance to get their message out with monthly infusions of celebrity to level out the impact of SuperPacs and big donors. As the field narrowed, he reined in the networks to make sure that they understood that it was Republicans selecting their nominees, not television pundits intent on establishing their own reputations.
Once Donald Trump emerged as the nominee, he carefully corralled Republicans (repeatedly) in the most difficult of circumstances — even when things appeared to be spinning out of control. Essentially, he kept the focus on winning in November — not settling scores from a hotly contested nomination process.
Some might see Priebus’ job as the most difficult of all the RNC chairs given the unpredictable topsy-turvy election cycle. But, in the end, his process and ground game produced not only the winning candidate, but also probably the only candidate who could beat former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
And for Priebus’ successor, President-elect Trump and he picked the same kind of chair from the one state no one thought the Republicans could win — Michigan. Now, the Democrats face the same decision. The question is whether they will go with style or substance?