Before he was the second most powerful person in the White House and ubiquitous on cable news, Reince Priebus was a bespectacled, ambitious University of Wisconsin–Whitewater Warhawk.
“In Reince I saw someone that was very bright and very involved,” says Wisconsin Republican National Committeeman Steve King of Janesville, who has known Priebus since he was a college Republican. “Even for a young man—an immature kid—he was very insightful, politically speaking.”
That insight has led Priebus through Republican Party chairmanships at the county, district, state and national level over the last two decades. Those who work with him say his leadership was key to a legacy of strategic victories. Priebus was state party chairman during a 2010 takeover of both houses of the state Legislature and the governor’s office. In 2011, he was elected head of the RNC and turned around a party that was so badly in debt it couldn’t make payroll. But until last year, he could not count a GOP presidential victory in Wisconsin or nationally among his accomplishments—a fact that had been eating away at Priebus and other Republicans for years.
“We are not winning presidential elections,” Priebus told me in an interview at the Republican National Convention in July, when asked about those who said Trump’s politically incorrect style was hurting the brand of Wisconsin Republicans. “To the folks that are doubting, the button-down Boy Scout approach hasn’t been working very well,” he said. “Donald Trump is different. He’s saying it like it is and I think people like what they hear.”
Priebus opted to stick with Trump through tweetstorms and an Access Hollywood video—continually optimistic that the New York businessman would pull it out in the end. It was a good bet. As White House chief of staff, he’ll now hold office next to the most powerful man in the world. Those who know Priebus say it’s in part because he saw something many Republicans didn’t—that Trump was winning over an influential swath of voters.
“I have to tip my hat to Reince for saying he’s likely to be our candidate and he can win when many Republicans were saying it’s a disaster,” says King.
That innate ability to read political tea leaves will be coupled with the fact that he has allies who want to replicate his successes in Washington. Priebus and House Speaker Paul Ryan have been close friends since the ’90s. And harkening back to the UW–Whitewater days: Andy Speth, a former college roommate of Priebus, is Ryan’s deputy chief of staff.
“That they should both end up chiefs of staff to the top two officeholders in this country?” King wonders. “Only in America.”
Priebus’ long tenure of leadership may not only serve as an asset to him while briefing in the Oval Office —it could also serve as a stumbling block.
“Going from being a leader to staff, that’s a challenge,” King says. “I think he’s up to it, but it’s going to be different for him.”
Different may not begin to cover it for the “good-ole Kenosha boy” King and other politicos describe. He’ll have two school-aged children at home while he spends countless hours in the White House. A renewed White House press corps is preparing to watch and question every move he makes. And he’ll be working for an unpredictable president with no political experience.
“If anybody can do it, Reince can do it,” King says. “And he’ll do a damn good job of it, too.”