Reince Priebus on the MKE RNC and the State of the GOP

GOP convention veteran Reince Priebus says he wants fellow Republicans to feel the love when they arrive next summer in the Democratic stronghold of Milwaukee.

Reince Priebus knows conventions.

Priebus, a Kenosha native, has been to four full-scale Republican National Conventions, starting in 1992, when he attended the Houston gathering as president of the UW-Whitewater College Republicans. He returned in 2008, leading Wisconsin’s delegation to St. Paul as state party chair. He helped run the 2012 Tampa and 2016 Cleveland conventions as national party chair. He also attended the much-abbreviated 2020 proceedings in Washington.  

Now, Priebus is chair of the host committee for his party’s 2024 convention in Milwaukee. In that role, he’s leading efforts to raise $65 million for the event and to ensure Republicans feel welcome in this largely blue city.

Many Americans know Priebus mainly from his sometimes-rocky association with former President Donald Trump. Priebus was an early Trump supporter who drew the 2016 GOP nominee’s wrath by urging him to drop out of the race after his offensive comments about women on the “Access Hollywood” set surfaced. Trump’s divisive racial rhetoric also conflicted with the recommendations of the 2012 election strategy “autopsy” that Priebus commissioned as party chair, which urged Republicans to reach out to people of color. 

Yet when Trump won, he named Priebus as his White House chief of staff – only to fire him a year later. Priebus says he’s since patched up his relationship with Trump, who as of early January was the only declared candidate for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination.



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In his day job, Priebus is in charge of the Washington office of the Milwaukee-based law firm of Michael Best & Friedrich, where he serves as president and chief strategist. He splits his time between his homes in Kenosha and Alexandria, Virginia.   

Priebus talked to Milwaukee Magazine about convention plans and the future of the party.

What exactly does the host committee do?

Its main objective is to highlight how great Milwaukee is and set us up for more business and more opportunities like this, so that when people come to Milwaukee, they say, “Wow, I had no idea how awesome this place is. I’d like to do an event here or go on vacation here.” What’s unique about me being the chair of the host committee is that I oversaw the last two conventions that the RNC actually put on. I don’t know if that’s ever happened before. I don’t think it has.

How will you show off Milwaukee?

We’re going to put on a program all week to feature different things about our city. Every one of these states and territories have their own delegation. That group of delegates, and all of their guests and their spouses and partners, will put on their own week’s activities. So, for example, if you have a delegation that’s staying in a hotel in Milwaukee or Waukesha or Racine, they’re going to do their own things in those hotels. The economic impact isn’t just the big picture in Milwaukee. It’s also, for example, the Iowa [delegation] that’s staying, potentially, in Racine. They have their three busloads of people that are doing their activities every day. They’re going to lunch somewhere in Racine, and then they’re going to lunch somewhere on the lakefront in Milwaukee, and they’re going on a boat cruise who knows where. You have these 56 mini-conventions also going on, besides the big picture that we’re dealing with in Milwaukee.

What will the convention mean for the regional economy?

It’s like bringing four Super Bowls in a row to a city. Look at Cleveland, at all the great things that happened since we had our convention – in the NBA [2022 All-Star Game], in Major League Baseball [2019 All-Star Game], in conventions. That experience was so positive that to this day, people still talk about what a great week it was. That potential is there for Milwaukee. I would expect that almost every single hotel in the greater Milwaukee area will be booked. That means Racine, Kenosha, all the WOW counties and north of there. Anywhere that you can drive within 30 minutes, you’re going to have hotels booked.

What about the convention’s political impact?

This gives the party a great opportunity to show that in politics, everything doesn’t need to be poisonous, that there are parts of politics that are congenial, that it’s not always good vs. evil, but that there’s actually an altruistic benefit to cooperation among Republicans and Democrats. I have to say I’m very grateful to the mayor of Milwaukee, the (Common) Council, the county executive, the County Board. You have the most unbelievable bipartisan example of cooperation that I’ve seen in a couple decades – not because it’s politics, but because it’s good for the city. Number two, it gives the Republican Party an opportunity to engage in outreach in communities that you might not represent, other than just trying to win an election, where you can build relationships that can change attitudes about the Republican Party. And it works for the Democrats as well. It’s not all just 30-second political ads that are like grenades that go off every two minutes on television, that people get tired of.

And do you think that translates into votes?

I do. It was cooperating with Democrat leaders in Cleveland that I think created a really positive feeling among everybody involved. Even in the site searches with cities that had Democrat mayors, I often kept up with those mayors in cities that weren’t chosen, just because in getting to know everybody, those positive interactions created relationships that you wouldn’t normally see between the chair of the Republican National Committee and the mayor of Kansas City or the mayor of Cleveland or the mayor of Tampa back in the day. He [then Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson] was a Democrat, too, and he was a fabulous partner.

How is fundraising going?

We have very generous people in Wisconsin who have already committed to a huge investment. Those are bipartisan efforts. The advantage is that Milwaukee just put together a framework of commitments to raise money for the DNC, and a lot of those businesses are going to come in to the RNC as well, because this isn’t about politics. This is about featuring the city of Milwaukee, and businesses in Wisconsin support that.

Are you concerned about violence at the convention?

I don’t have a concern, because I’ve been through the planning process at other conventions. That was a concern as well in Cleveland, but the way that worked with the federal government and local police was pretty remarkable. I think that things in Milwaukee are going to be very smooth. You have to strike a balance between giving people the freedom to move, making sure that businesses are open, and handling people’s right to protest. The other big advantage here is that Milwaukee has already been through this planning process with the federal government and the Secret Service. We’re not coming up with it for the first time.

Are you planning any public outreach events?

Absolutely, but efforts, too, to include disadvantaged businesses and to spread the wealth throughout the city. When we’re doing parties every night, we would try to move those parties and events to different areas of the city.

Has the Republican Party become more diverse since 2012?

If you just look at the numbers, I think the party has come a long way. I think that engaging in diverse communities on a year-round basis, not just three months before an election, is now in the DNA of the party. If you want to do better in Milwaukee, you need to show true, genuine, heartfelt interest in the community. And the convention gives the party, and the host committee – which is not partisan – an opportunity to show a true heartfelt engagement that isn’t just about “I want your vote.” This is about making sure that people take part in what should be an economic boom for the city. And now you’re not just talking about political promises. You’re talking about putting food on the table, making people more profitable and having a real economic impact on the community.

Will your up-and-down background with ex-President Trump help or hurt you as host committee chair?

I think it helps. I’ve got a good relationship with President Trump. I think the White House was up and down [laughs], but besides that, it’s been great. I would say it’s always helpful to have good relations with whomever the nominee is going to be. 

What about other potential candidates, like former Vice President Mike Pence, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, (now declared candidate) former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley and others?

I’m in a unique position, in that I have great relationships with all of them. I’ve just tended to get along with people. I just put my head down and would just rather get along than pick fights with people, so politically, I’ve been able to survive because of the way I’ve approached politics and difficult things that happen in politics, especially at the national level. And I think that I’ve managed all that pretty well, considering that I’ve been through the wringer quite a few times.

What lessons do the elections of 2018, 2020 and 2022 hold for Republicans?

They’re different lessons. I would set a goal to never see yourself below 30% in any community, anywhere in Wisconsin or anywhere around the country. If you set a goal that we’re never going to get again less than 30% in, say, Dane County, that’s going to require a year-round commitment to students, to people in Black communities, Hispanic communities, Asian communities.

The other thing is that very few people are deciding the outcomes of elections: 48% of the public feels very strongly one way, and 48% of the public feels very strongly another way, and there’s only four or five percent in the middle. I think that four to five percent, as well as a large chunk of others, are just tired of hating each other. I think people are sick of the sort of unbelievable representation of each candidate, that you just happen to have two candidates in every single battleground state in America who are completely unacceptable to the other side and a threat to the country. And I don’t think people are believing that. Even though the country’s more divided than ever, that division is solidifying a huge chunk of people, but it’s also causing a messaging problem where none of it’s resonating with those people who aren’t choosing one camp or the other.

And you saw that around the country [in the 2022 midterms]. Other than one in Nevada, not a single incumbent statewide elected person, Republican or Democrat, lost. Why is that? It’s because people weren’t believing the messaging. I think that’s a huge lesson. I think realistic messaging has got to come more into play. Too much of it is not being believed by voters.

There’s fewer people and smaller majorities that are deciding both legislation and the outcomes of elections. There’s fewer people identifying themselves as independents. There’s fewer people controlling the House and the Senate. But those few people left have an enormous say in the outcomes of our elections.

What is a winning message for the Republican Party in 2024?

I can’t tell you what the issues are going to be in 2024, but I do think that being for things and having clear, concise messaging as to what you believe in, who you are as a person, where you grew up, who your family is, what makes you tick – I think people are people, and they want to be treated reasonably. The economy still is No. 1. What are you going to do about the economy? What are you going to do about gas prices? What are you going to do about groceries? What are you going to do about crime? What are you going to do about our border? What are we doing about China? Taiwan? Ukraine? Those are the things the people want to talk about, and I think those are the things that candidates are going to have to concentrate on.

Is questioning the 2020 election – and even the Constitution itself – a winning position for Republicans?

You can look at the results. A lot of the folks who concentrated mostly on those issues didn’t fare very well. I think people can look at that and come to their own conclusions. But certainly what you’re going to do for people in the future seems to be more of a winning message. 

If you look at the outcome of the [2022] election, Republicans outperformed Democrats in turnout, but there were too many Republicans not voting for Republicans. That, to me, is a messaging problem more than a turnout problem. Obviously, if you have [Gov.] Brian Kemp winning easily in Georgia, and you have [Trump-backed GOP candidate] Herschel Walker losing twice [in the U.S. Senate general and runoff elections] with the same electorate, there’s broad disconnect where you have Republicans turning out and not actually voting for the Republican candidate. 

It turns out that voters sometimes have minds of their own. It’s up to candidates to make sure that their messages are straight and aligned with the people who are turning out and voting. It’s pretty simple stuff, actually.

Is it better for the party to have an extended primary battle or unify early behind a front-runner?

I’ve been on every side of this issue and I tend to come down on the side that I think primaries are good. I think they engage more people. I tend to think that coronations don’t work as well as a tough primary.

Time to Reconvene

This is the rebound convention, Milwaukee’s second chance at political stardom.

THE FIRST CHANCE was supposed to be the 2020 Democratic National Convention. Then-Mayor Tom Barrett and other city leaders were ecstatic about beating Houston and Miami to host the quadrennial gathering. But as convention preparations geared up, so did the COVID-19 pandemic. The DNC shifted to an almost all-virtual format, and its promised economic benefits dissolved into the ether.

Barrett and others then started lobbying for a DNC do-over in 2024, while leaving the door open to host the Republican National Convention as well. The city soon found itself competing for both conventions, emphasizing it could reuse plans drawn up for the 2020 DNC. This time, Milwaukee advanced further in the GOP selection process, reaching a showdown with Nashville.

But in both mostly Democratic cities, some council members argued the Republican convention could strain city resources and bring violence. New Mayor Cavalier Johnson and Common Council President José Pérez overcame those concerns and won a unanimous council vote by contending that the convention’s projected $200 million economic impact was too great to pass up. Nashville’s Metro Council remained unconvinced. Republicans picked Milwaukee in August.

The convention is expected to draw 45,000 visitors to the region July 15-18, 2024, based at Fiserv Forum and its sister Wisconsin Center District buildings. The host committee set kickoff events in January to start building enthusiasm.



This story is part of Milwaukee Magazine‘s February issue.

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Larry Sandler has been writing about Milwaukee-area news for more than 30 years. He covered City Hall and transportation for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, after reporting on county government, business and education for the former Milwaukee Sentinel. At the Journal Sentinel, he won a Milwaukee Press Club award for his investigation of airline security. He's been freelancing since late 2012, with a focus on local government, politics and transportation. His contributions to Milwaukee Magazine have included in-depth articles about our lively local politics, prized cultural assets and evolving transportation options. Larry grew up in Chicago and now lives in Glendale.