In early 1854, a group of antislavery activists disgusted by the Kansas-Nebraska Act began meeting in Wisconsin to show their opposition. On March 20, a little more than two weeks after the Senate passed the measure allowing additional slave states to join the union, those activists met in a little white schoolhouse in Ripon and decided to abandon the Free Soil and Whig parties and form a new coalition to fight slavery. A young lawyer, Alvan Bovay, gave it a name: The Republican Party.
Now, 157 years later, the head of the Grand Old Party is once again a young lawyer from Wisconsin, Reince Priebus. The boyish-looking 40-year-old chairman of the Republican National Committee, born and raised in Kenosha, got a taste for politics at a young age. His grandfather, an immigrant from Greece, gave him an introduction through the World Book Encyclopedia.
“He would sit there and read the letter ‘P’ for ‘president,’ and tell stories for hours about the presidents, usually with a little Johnny Walker by his side,” Priebus said. “My grandfather loved this country, and he loved every little tiny thing about it, except he wasn’t from here. I think that had a profound impact on me growing up.”
Priebus still keeps a portrait of the little white schoolhouse on the wall of his spacious office at national party headquarters. It is next to photos of the Green Bay Packers and, more telling, one of Priebus and two of his close friends: Gov. Scott Walker and Rep. Paul Ryan.
The three men have had quite a two-year stretch: Before the 2010 elections, Priebus was a top lieutenant to Michael Steele, his predecessor as RNC chairman; Walker was a lowly county executive in a Democratic-leaning state; and Ryan was the ranking minority member of the House Budget Committee, an obscure post anywhere but on Capitol Hill. Then Republicans won control of Congress, vaulting Ryan into position as one of the most influential members of the House GOP Conference. Walker won the governorship. And Priebus challenged Steele, whose tenure was marked by controversy and a mountain of debt; the Wisconsinite bested several better-known candidates to become chairman.
“The cheesehead revolution continues,” Priebus joked in an interview.
Walker became a major figure by fending off a recall election. Ryan, already a hero in conservative circles, is becoming a household name since Mitt Romney tapped him as his vice presidential nominee. But Priebus has tried to start his tenure in a more humble way, partly because his predecessor was such a lightning rod.
He has done more than keep the lights on, which was a real concern when he took over the party and learned that it was more than $20 million in debt. By the end of July, the RNC had $88 million in the bank, more than enough to fully fund its coordination with Romney’s campaign. In fact, the committee has already begun buying its own independent advertising, and Priebus has pledged to spend on behalf of Republican House and Senate candidates, too. By contrast, the Democratic National Committee has not run independent advertising, and strategists say it won’t help fund the Democratic Senate or House campaign committees.
That’s not bad for a corporate lawyer from Milwaukee whose political experience—running a losing state Senate campaign and serving as the youngest party chairman in Wisconsin history—doesn’t scream Washington insider.
But Priebus is now a familiar face in Washington: He has appeared on prime-time television or on Sunday public-affairs shows more than 70 times this year. His name—the product, he jokes, of his German mother and Greek father—isn’t mispronounced nearly as frequently as it once was.