Despite having D.C.'s toughest job, RNC chair Priebus doesn't want pity

Story highlights

  • The mild-mannered lawyer from Wisconsin is caught in the middle of a firestorm
  • But Priebus keeps things in perspective

Washington (CNN)Without a doubt, Reince Priebus, the chairman of the Republican National Committee, has the toughest job in politics right now.

The mild-mannered lawyer from Wisconsin is caught in the middle of a firestorm. Front-runner Donald Trump is accusing the RNC of rigging the delegate system against him. The so-called "establishment" is fighting to stop Trump and blaming Priebus for letting the billionaire get this far.
    Priebus sees it differently.
    "I'm not going to do anything to help anyone, and I'm not going to do anything to hurt anybody," Priebus told CNN Special Correspondent Jamie Gangel.
    But with daggers seemingly being thrown from all sides, the Kenosha native keeps things in perspective.
    "Sometimes you can't fix it," Priebus said. "Sometimes you can just take a seven-alarm fire and just make it a four-alarm fire. It's still burning, but it's not as bad as it was."

    How Reince unwinds

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    That attitude is what keeps Priebus grounded, according to Sally, his wife of 17 years. "Reince is very strong. He has a thick skin. He lets it roll off his shoulders. He's tough. He doesn't tolerate a lot of drama."
    In order to step away from that drama, the 44-year-old turns to several favorite pastimes: fishing, Green Bay Packers' football and music. His wife says Priebus sometimes puts the phone away and spends spends 30-45 minutes on the piano.
    In fact, Priebus is a two-time piano competition champion who plays all genres.
    His favorite? The blues. But he quickly points out that his playlist includes everything from rock-and-roll to Frank Sinatra to Beethoven.
    Priebus has been playing piano since he was a young boy. And now, his two small children -- Jack and Grace -- are taking lessons.
    "Music, I think, is an important part of life. I think it's good for kids to learn an instrument -- do something besides iPhone games," Priebus said.

    A lifelong 'political nerd'

    Games may be exactly how he was able to woo his wife.
    The couple, who have known each other since middle school, spent their first date at a political dinner in their hometown. "He told me we were going to the movies. It was pretty boring. But we did go to the movies afterward and we had a great time," Sally said.
    Priebus, also with a huge grin on his face, admits, "It's a little weird. That's a nerd alert."
    A lifelong "political nerd" is exactly how he describes himself. The son of a Greek mother and a German father, Priebus says his maternal grandfather got him interested in the game.
    "He loved politics," Priebus said. "As a little guy, I followed him everywhere. He wasn't from here, and he loved this country. So I just started loving politics and the Republican Party."
    In fact, his first political memory was in third grade. "At our class election, I remember voting for Ronald Reagan," he said, adding, "I remember going to rallies. My mom would bring me."
    And, by 16, he became the youngest member in the history of the Kenosha County GOP Board. It was his first step in fulfilling his "mission" to lead the Republican Party.

    Don't 'feel sorry for me'

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    Priebus took over the helm of the GOP in January 2011. At the time, the party was dealing with a huge financial crisis and millions of dollars in debt.
    The little-known Wisconsin man, who had served as RNC general counsel during his predecessor Michael Steele's term, surprised the political world by winning the chairmanship on a seventh ballot.
    His mission at the time: Fix the financial troubles, grow the party, win a presidential election.
    He accomplished the first goal in less than two years by raising tons of money and improving relations with major donors.
    Now, his goal in one word: "Win".
    "We've become a midterm party that doesn't lose and a presidential party that's had a hard time winning," he said.
    But being the middle man during this year's Republican presidential fight has made things difficult for Priebus, who is visibly uncomfortable talking about himself.
    "No one should feel sorry for me," he said. "I signed up for this."