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But despite those and other similarities — all three men are married with young children and are driven politically by fiscal issues — Priebus, Ryan and Walker interacted sparingly as they rose through the ranks of the Wisconsin GOP on distinct career tracks. They became close friends and regular confidants only in recent years, as each solidified a position of prominence within the national party. This connection was cemented on the electoral battlefield from 2009 through 2012.
Priebus was Wisconsin GOP chairman during the 2010 cycle, when he worked to help elect Walker governor. Priebus took over as RNC chairman in 2011 and used his position to help Walker win a 2012 recall campaign; he also worked on behalf of the Romney/Ryan ticket. Ryan, meanwhile, lent his hand to Walker during the recall, while the governor traveled the country on behalf of Romney and his running mate, and by extension, Priebus throughout 2012.
Now, the trio’s relationship includes a social component and extends to their wives. According to Republican sources in Wisconsin and Washington, the men chat about once a week via phone calls and text messages, with conversations heavier among Priebus and Walker, Priebus and Ryan, or Walker and Ryan, depending on events or the subject. They function as each other’s sounding boards and offer tangible political assistance.
“It’s the trio; it’s our wonderful Wisconsin trio,” a well-connected GOP operative based in the Badger State said. “They’re kind of like soul mates.”
For Priebus, the stakes over the next two years are high, as he moves to implement a complete overhaul of RNC field operations in advance of 2014 and 2016, modernize how the committee collects and synthesizes voter data, and improve outreach to minority demographics. Democrats maintain a significant advantage in these three key areas of electioneering.
“If we want to grow our party and win elections going forward, Reince has got to help us move in the right direction,” said Henry Barbour, a GOP insider who is close to Priebus and said the chairman could prove to be as consequential as his uncle, former RNC Chairman and ex-Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour.
The relationship between Priebus, Ryan and Walker is described as one of professional equals. But the dynamic between the House Budget chairman and the governor is stronger because they share the experience of being elected officials with exposure on the national stage — and they’re both overhaul-minded “policy geeks.” If any rivalry exists between the two, it is said to be friendly.
That comity could be tested if both set their sights on the 2016 presidential sweepstakes, which will get under way in earnest immediately following the 2014 midterms. Most Republican insiders who keep tabs on Ryan and Walker expect the governor to give the congressman the right of first refusal and happily endorse him and enthusiastically campaign for him if he decides to run. But that doesn’t mean Walker isn’t interested in running; he is.