On Tuesday Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus named Mike Shields, currently the political director at the National Republican Congressional Committee, to serve as his new chief of staff, replacing the controversial Jeff Larson in that position. Larson's close ties with vendor FLS Connect, a firm that received over $38 million in non-competitively bid contracts with the RNC during the 2011-2012 election cycle, sparked much criticism of the "insider" culture of Republican establishment consultants. According to Priebus, Larson will remain at the RNC as a "senior advisor."
Priebus stated that "Mike brings a wealth of political experience with him to the RNC, having worked on the Hill and in the field, for national committees and at the state level. We’re excited to welcome him to the team as the RNC takes our positive message of opportunity to every voter in every neighborhood."
For his part, Shields emphasized his two decades of experience with the RNC. "I’m thrilled to return to the RNC, where I began my political career almost twenty years ago ," he said. "Republicans have incredible opportunities in the coming years--from breaking new ground on the digital front to reaching new voters--and I’m honored to be a part of that work under Chairman Priebus. To position ourselves for 2016, we must leapfrog the Democrats’ digital and data capabilities. It’s absolutely essential for our party to be the leaders in campaign technology. "
Shields is not well known outside the tight world of Republican political operatives, but Reagan biographer Craig Shirley told Breitbart News "if Shields learned his trade from Gingrich, who learned his trade from Reagan, then this is a good hire by the RNC."
Shields, however, brings little in the way of technology expertise to his new job. His entire career has been as a political operative and political staffer. A graduate of George Mason University, Shields worked at the RNC as an entry level staffer from 1994 to 1996. For the first six months of 1996 he was the communications director for the Virginia Republican Party. In July, 1966 he became communications director for the political office of then Speaker Newt Gingrich. From 1998 he worked for Gingrich at Gingrich Communications. In 2005 he became Chief of Staff for a Republican Congressman, and in 2009 he became director of special projects at the National Republican Congressional Committee. In 2012, as political director he headed up the NRCC's campaign division, which saw the Republican Party lose seven seats in the House of Representatives in the 113th Congress, down from the historic 240 seat majority delivered to it in the 112th Congress by the Tea Party in the tidal wave election of 2010.
Despite his new chief of staff's lack of technology management experience, Priebus has entrusted him with the implementation of the so called "Growth and Opportunity Project," which has been touted as the first step in the RNC's attempt to narrow the digital gap with the Democrats. "The Growth and Opportunity Project will make its recommendations to the Committee in March," Priebus said, "and Mike will be well-suited to guide their implementation. From engaging new voters, training candidates and volunteers, enhancing our digital capabilities, and sharing our message, we have plenty of work to do."
The well respected new media technology consulting firm EngageDC documented the Republican Party's dramatic technology deficit in his December, 2012 report, 'Inside the Cave.' Among the report's conclusions:
Practitioners on both sides agree that 2012 was a big step forward for integrating Digital with the rest of the campaign. Jeremy Bird notes than in eight years, “We will have difficulty telling a Field Director apart from a Digital Organizing Director. They are one and the same in future campaigns.” Indeed, as the backbone of the campaign itself moves online, separate Digital departments may fade away. The challenge will be to accomplish this transition while continuing to grow digital’s primacy within campaign organizations.
Mr. Shields appointment as the new RNC chief of staff suggests he has Chairman Priebus' confidence he has the experience necessary to bridge the RNC's digital divide. The midterms in 2014 will give the first indication whether this confidence is justified.