Badger State Republicans swear that there’s nothing in the water in southeast Wisconsin. But for the next few years, the GOP’s fate could rest with three men who hail from there and who have become crucial leaders in the national party.
The trio, House Budget Chairman Paul D. Ryan, Gov. Scott Walker and Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus, has a strong personal and professional bond. They talk regularly and compare notes on policy and political strategy, alternately offering and seeking advice. Ryan, 43, and Walker, 45, are considered strong 2016 presidential contenders, and it’s up to Priebus to ensure that the eventual GOP nominee is backed by a modernized, competitive field and data operation.
Unclear is whether Walker will defer to Ryan, the 2012 vice presidential nominee, on a 2016 White House run.
GOP observers agree that it’s unrealistic for two Wisconsin Republicans to run, particularly because they hail from the same generation and share the same conservative approach to governing. Some party insiders believe Walker will wait on Ryan, who could tip his hand later this year by telling his House colleagues whether he intends to run for Ways and Means chairman. The post opens in 2015, and Ryan has described it as his dream job.
But others, noting that Walker’s ambition surpasses simply winning a second gubernatorial term in 2014, say he will make his decision about national office independent of Ryan.
As Ryan sets the Republican Party’s fiscal agenda from his perch in Washington and Walker presents a model for conservative governance in the states, Priebus, 41, could play a key role in reviving his party’s political fortunes nationally, after the GOP got outclassed by President Barack Obama last year.
“If they’re successful, they’ll bring huge change across the party,” said Ron Kaufman, a longtime Republican operative who served as a senior adviser to 2012 GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney.
Priebus, Ryan and Walker came of age politically during the same period and were influenced to some degree by Tommy Thompson, a former four-term Republican governor and failed 2012 Senate candidate. Their three hometowns are located within miles of each other in the southeast corner of Wisconsin that is included in the 1st District — a former swing seat represented by Ryan since 1998.
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.
For now, the governor is focused on his re-election bid, and any immediate ambition for higher office is unlikely to crystallize until after Election Day 2014. For Ryan, knowledgeable GOP sources confirm that the congressman’s long view of his political career and what it might be was altered by the experience of running for vice president, as was his wife’s opinion. In other words, they enjoyed it and would consider doing it again.
Republicans liken this situation to the two Florida Republicans considered to be top-tier presidential candidates: former Gov. Jeb Bush and Sen. Marco Rubio. Only one of them can run in 2016, and although few believe Rubio would specifically defer to Bush, the two Floridians have been close for years and the expectation is that the senator, who is a generation younger, would put his ambition on hold if the ex-governor wanted to run.
“Gov. Walker is very supportive of Paul Ryan and will be deferential to a point to see what Paul decides,” said a GOP operative with Wisconsin ties. “Many believe that he wants to go in 2016, but he’s pragmatic enough to know that he can’t get out ahead of Paul Ryan.”
Ryan, Walker and Priebus are close friends and regular confidants, but 2016 presidential race could test relationships
An earlier version of this article incorrectly identified Scott Walker's age.