Mark Willis: Ready to rebrand the Republican Party

Can a change in leadership save the Republican Party from its own inertia and allow it to rebrand and reinvent itself? Photo: Associated Press

WASHINGTON, DC, January 20, 2013 —After a disastrous November and their Party’s humiliating electoral defeat, many Republicans think it’s time to make some changes. 

Party Chairman Reine Priebus seems to be in denial. In an interview last week about the presidential campaign, he said that the Republican National Committee and the Romney crew “ran a great campaign.” He did not explain what was so great about losing to a president who has bankrupted the country and has produced record high unemployment, nor why it’s great that Republicans lost seats in the House and Senate and ran candidates who could not refrain from making stupid and extreme statements that discredited the entire party.

Priebus has to try to make this sow’s ear into a silk purse because, as party Chairman, he owns it, and he’s the one who should ultimately be held accountable. He has to try to make people forget about his November debacle because he’s now trying to get reelected as party chairman, just two months after failing at the one part of his job that really matters.

It’s another sign of the gross dysfunctionality of the GOP that going into the vote for Chairman, Priebus has been able to claim that as many as 130 of the 168 members of the party’s National Committee support his reelection. These people ought to be calling for his head, but they are lost at sea and have no clue about what to do in a crisis except stick with the status quo, even if it is just a legacy of failure.

The rank and file of the party are not happy. They see the poor showing in the election as a failure of leadership. The RNC handled every aspect of the election badly and supported the Romney campaign in alienating not only key independent voters, but also many grassroots Republicans by their high-handedness and lack of respect for the party’s members and their principles. Turnout of solid Republican voters was down by more than 2 million. Republican voters just didn’t like Romney or the way the campaign was run, so they stayed home.

The small group of RNC members who want to see Priebus held accountable has produced a candidate to challenge him for the chairmanship, freshman committeeman Mark Willis.  Willis is well qualified for a leadership role despite being new to the RNC. He is a member of the Republican Liberty Caucus and has a diverse background in military intelligence and the tech industry.

Willis was inspired to run against Priebus because of abuses of the nominating process he saw from the leadership at the Republican National Convention in Tampa last year. He led a walkout of delegates in protest of the removal of delegates from committees, and the railroaded votes on unpopular rule changes which ignored challenges and protests from the floor. When I spoke with Willis recently he observed that “casting some sunshine on the problems in the RNC and the way Mr. Priebus presided over it showed me that there are bigger problems than we had suspected.”

When no one else stepped forward to challenge Priebus, it became clear that he had to take it on, explaining that he “wanted to be able to say to my kids or grandkids that I did the right thing at the right time when I had the ability to do so. When I go out of this world I want to go out knowing that I did what I could to promote the cause of liberty and make this country a better place.”

Willis has big plans for changes in how the party operates. Drawing on his background in military intelligence and computer technology, he believes that he can reduce the technological advantages which the Democrats used with devastating effectiveness in 2012. He says, “I think it is very important to bring that kind of technological background and that kind of database and programming experience to the job.”

He would work at “assembling experts from day one to coiunter the significant technology edge which the Democrats demonstrated in the last election.” He adds, “I’d want to assess what resources we have and how we can use them effectively and figure out what the Democrats have that gave them an advantage and figure out how to match or exceed their capabilities.”

Willis also thinks he can do well in the Chairman’s key role as a fundraiser, through he believes “that both parties have made fundraising an absolute obsession to the point where they have lost track of the overall message and ideology of the party.” He believes that party reforms and bringing alienated members back to the fold will strengthen the party, and that this will lead to a strong financial base.

Willis wants to go beyond just raising money. He wants to focus on better leadership for the party. He says, “money is important and I’ll definitely put forth a plan to all the current donors and tell them that there’s no reason for them to leave if I win. I embrace all people in the party. We’re a big tent. But we have to get to the point where we acknowledge that fundraising is important, but it’s not everything. There are internal problems in the party which everybody knows are there, and no amount of money can solve those problems.”

Willis thinks he is well equipped to lead the party because of his business and military background, pointing out that “it’s the team you can put together to get the job done, people you can trust an people to whom you can delegate responsibilities with the expectation that they can do the jobs you give them without micromanagement. You’d have to have regular meetings with your team to make sure nothing slips through the cracks and keep the pressure on to get tasks done. As General Patton said, “Pressure makes diamonds.” You have to instill a little bit of positive pressure on the people who are working for you that you are checking up to make sure everything is going well.” 

He also wants to reconnect with the party base and let the party run elections from the ground up. He says, “I want the party to be transparent and evenhanded and let the people pick the candidates. If donors see me coming along and think that it’s a problem for the RNC to give up the ability to pick candidates, then I’d remind them that a candidate like Ronald Reagan, who is picked by the rank and file, is a better, stronger candidate than someone selected by the people at the top, and that benefits everyone, especially going into a general election.”

Willis says he would “assemble a team and talk to them and tell them that the current top-down approach of selling policy to the grassroots is the exact opposite of what we should do, and we should be listening to the rank and file Republicans because they know what they want and are thirsting for leaders who speak the same language and will listen to them and hold the line on the issues which matter to them and do what they’re supposed to do when they get to Congress.”

Willis saw a lot of divisiveness coming out of the 2012 election. It drove people away from the party, and he lays much of the blame on the Romney campaign. “The best thing Romney could have done in Tampa was to just let Ron Paul get nominated with his five states and make his speech. We all knew Ron Paul was not going to win the nomination at that point, but if he had been allowed to do that then Romney could have said that all of us were in it together no matter who we supported in the primary - Bachmann, Santorum, Paul, Gingrich.

“It would have made the party and the campaign stronger and brought people on board who instead felt left out and rejected. If that had happened, it might have made a big difference in the general election, and it would at the very least have made the party stronger and united.”

Inclusiveness is a big concern for Willis, who says, “If you’re a Republican and you’ve got ideas, you’re welcome and no one is going to be driven away or ostracized like some of our delegates in Tampa.” He also points out that, “If you look at the preamble of the rules, it says ‘We are the party of liberty and equality and favoritism for none,’ and I say that if that’s the case, why don’t we start acting like it?”

If he is elected, Willis would start his term as Chairman by repealing the rule changes which were made in Tampa and return control of the party to the members and the state parties.  He says, “These rule changes are not good for the party and they are not legitimate, because they were passed erroneously through a scripted vote. There should have at least been a show of hands, or even a superballot vote. In the voice vote, depending on where you stood on the floor, it sounded like the nays had it, and that should have dictated some sort of counted vote. Repealing them will restore integrity and confidence in the process.”

His second goal would be to “visit every state and let them know that there’s a new policy at the top. It would take a large travel budget, but I want to sit down with the party leaders in each state and tell them that we’re transferring more autonomy and more responsibility to them and explain to them why it’s important for them to take initiative and rebuild their state party their way.

Willis sees many of the problems in the party coming down to one source:

“The one word that ties it all together is ‘hypocrisy,’ and that is something people talk about all over the country and people say, ‘look at what they say, and then what they do in example after example in every state.’ They say, ‘look at how they treat us every single time.’ There’s no respect for the voters. The party promises one thing and delivers something very different.

“It’s like Lucy holding the football for Charlie Brown and then pulling it away. We keep making promises that it will get better and then not delivering.  People get frustrated and say why should we keep supporting this party. They ask why aren’t they electing better candidates? Why aren’t they following the platform? Why aren’t they implementing the ideas they claim they believe in when they get to Washington?…It all comes down to hypocrisy, and you don’t want to be known for that as a party. That’s what we have to deal with coming out of 2012.”

Willis also has an agenda for the party’s future. “We have to rebrand this party and convince people that there are people of integrity in the party and that it really can be a party of smaller government. We need to look at what we’re doing as a government and make hard decisions.

“We have to admit we can’t keep fighting wars all over the world at our expense for the benefit of others. We need a Department of Defense, not a Department of War and at this point most Republicans are ready to accept that.

“We need to draw some firm budget lines even in areas where it’s hard to do. We need to say “enough is enough” about the fiscal cliff. We need to tell the Democrats that we’re not going to keep raising the debt limit again and again and that we have to live within our means.

“We need to show grassroots Republican voters that we deserve their confidence and that we are actively implementing a fiscally conservative policy. And we need to show it by not putting obstacles in the way of candidates in the primary who embrace that kind of change and honesty.

“We have to rebrand the party. A recent poll showed that we are the most disliked party in the whole country. To me that’s because we’ve lost the trust of the people. So many people believe the party is beyond reform and they ask me why I’m even trying to change it when I might as well just give up. Well, I was elected for four years and I want to do as much as I can in those four years to get this party moving in a better direction and that’s what I intend to do.”

To get to make these changes, Willis has to get nominated for Party Chairman first. To do that, he needs commitments from at least two delegates in each of three states by the middle of this coming week. He promises that if the delegates support him, they’ll like what they get.

“If I go in and I’m the new boss, people are going to like my management style. I’ll be open and honest with everybody and give everyone a chance who thinks they can help the party and get the job done. Inclusiveness. I will not exclude people from the party. If I do get elected some people may be angry and stomp off, but I say, stick around and get to know me. I’m not so bad, and even though I came out of the liberty movement, there’s a lot of us who are very principled people who can bring a new perspective and a new tone to the party, and I’ll be able to go out on TV and in the media and say honestly that this is a new and revitalized party and tell them why and that we want to be inclusive and it’s okay to come back. I’ll tell them we’ve had our problems, but the new management is going to be positive and not heavy handed.”

Is the Republican Party ready for real change? Can the establishment give up some power to save the party? Does the GOP even have a future if it can’t rebrand and reinvent itself before 2014? Mark Willis thinks he has the answers, but is the RNC listening?

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Dave Nalle

Dave Nalle has been writing political analysis since the 1980s for newspapers, magazines and now online journals. He is currently Execitive Director of the Center for Foreign Policy Priorities, is on the board of the Coalition to Reduce Spending, and served four years as National Chairman of the Republican Liberty Caucus.

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