He's never held elective office, yet now Reince Priebus holds one of the nation's most powerful jobs in Donald Trump's inner circle. Can a short guy with a funny name make order out of chaos and keep the Trump train surging forward? We take a look back at his early years as Kenosha's Alex P. Keaton.
Reince Priebus was clearly dispirited. It was November 2004. Priebus, then a young corporate lawyer for a Milwaukee firm, had just lost his first, and so far only, race for public office, running for a state Senate seat in his hometown of Kenosha. The incumbent Democrat, Bob Wirch, managed a four-point win in the toughest race of his Senate career.
To add insult to injury, Priebus had lost his cellphone while collecting one of his campaign signs in a field that morning.
He spent election night with his pal and fellow Republican upstart, Paul Ryan, at what was supposed to be a joint victory party at the Radisson Hotel in Pleasant Prairie. With historically high turnout thanks to the tight presidential race between George W. Bush and John Kerry, returns were slow to come out, and it wasn’t until the wee hours when the race could be called for Wirch.
“He was so dejected,” Ryan says. “I remember giving him pep talks all night, trying to cheer him up.”
Fast forward 12 years, to another election night in November 2016. Instead of the Pleasant Prairie Radisson, Priebus found himself in the posh confines of the New York Hilton Midtown alongside a different newbie candidate giving politics a try. Another late night ended with a shocking result of the opposite sort.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” a surprised Priebus pronounced after being called onstage by the candidate, “the next president of the United States, Donald Trump!” The audience erupted. In his victory speech, Trump called the slightly awestruck Republican National Committee chairman “a superstar.” The pair could not be less alike – Trump’s a billionaire son of a millionaire who’s full of bluster and bravado, while Priebus is a blend-into-the-walls son of a Kenosha electrician who just four years earlier warned Republicans that their party’s very existence depended on expanding beyond the old-white-and-angry demographic Trump had just ridden to victory.
Within days, Trump cemented the unlikely political bromance by appointing Priebus his White House chief of staff . The guy whose political career seemed as lost as his cellphone a dozen years ago was about to become one of the nation’s most powerful men, with a West Wing office and a mission-impossible task to guide history’s most inexperienced and impulsive president through the booby traps and razor wire of Washington, D.C., politics.
One thing that hadn’t changed from 12 years ago: Paul Ryan. Now Speaker of the House, he’s working closely with his old Wisconsin pal on moving Trump’s agenda through Congress, now solidly in Republican hands.
Before Priebus, who declined comment for this story, left the RNC for his new post, his office was about a block from Ryan’s, and the two would get together regularly.
“I’d drink Miller Lite; he’d drink High Life,” Ryan says, “and we would just talk about the world’s problems.”
Priebus’ problems took on a new level of prominence in 2016, as he steered the Republican Party through perhaps the rockiest presidential primary season in its history, Trump’s chaotic candidacy and, then, a victory that stared conventional wisdom in the face and laughed.
Tune in to WUWM’s (FM 89.7) “Lake Effect” March 9 at 10 a.m. to hear more about the story.