RNC Navigates Role Under Maverick President
For the first time in eight years, the Republican National Committee won’t be a prominent foil to a Democratic president, rooting around for a path back to the White House.
Instead, with Republican power restored in Washington, the committee now faces a novel question: What comes next?
The last time the GOP considered this puzzle, when President George W. Bush took office, the landscape was more familiar and Bush was a known quantity. The committee would aim to amplify his message and strengthen his political standing, with buy-in from the White House.
But President Donald Trump is an unconventional party leader whose candidacy at turns puzzled and outraged the Republican Party establishment. During the primaries, he suggested the party had rigged the system against him, before ultimately bringing the RNC into his general election campaign.
Now, what role the RNC will play during his administration is an open question.
Trump “has not come up through the party, so we don’t know exactly what his approach will be,” said former Virginia Gov. Jim Gilmore, who led the RNC at the start of Bush’s first term.
There is no guarantee that Trump will continue to endorse the RNC as the leading force for his political objectives. After President Obama’s 2008 victory, Obama opted to empower his own campaign organization, Organizing For Action, to continue rallying his base around policy objectives — stripping some power and personnel from the Democratic National Committee.
If Trump has shown himself to be skeptical of the RNC, however, he has not built out a political organization to rival the party’s, likely ensuring the committee’s continued dominance. And Trump has stacked his White House with former RNC bigwigs who could defend the committee’s role to him: Reince Priebus, the outgoing chairman, is now Trump’s White House chief of staff, and Katie Walsh, former RNC chief of staff, continues as Priebus’s deputy. Sean Spicer, now the White House press secretary, is another prominent RNC alum.
“There already is a good relationship between the RNC and the White House, in part because there are a lot of RNC people over there,” said one committee staffer.
The committee’s new chairwoman, Ronna McDaniel (pictured above) also boasts a personal connection with Trump, having won him over as chair of the Michigan Republican Party, a state where Trump scored a surprise victory that helped lift him to the presidency.
"Ronna McDaniel, what a great job you and your people have done," Trump said during a December rally in Michigan, before he tapped her to lead the RNC. "I was very impressed with you. She didn't sleep for six months!"
McDaniel will likely aim to build on Trump’s success on her home turf by making further inroads for GOP in the Rust Belt. She also appears poised to support and continue the strategic path forged by Priebus, who built out the party’s digital and data operations, deployed a semi-permanent ground operation across the country, and sought to broaden the party’s appeal among women and minorities.
McDaniel “is saying the same things we were saying when Chairman Priebus was there,” said one senior RNC insider. “That’s good.”
However, Trump’s campaign, which drew support from white men in the highest proportions, might have stunted the committee’s goal in particular to target women and minorities. And some of his early actions as president, including a controversial executive order to block refugees and immigrants from seven Muslim-majority countries, have threatened to further shrink his appeal beyond white voters.
As McDaniel took the reins of the RNC on the day before Trump’s inauguration, she pledged to lead a “unified and inclusive Republican Party” that promotes “opportunity for everyone,” signaling a continued focus on outreach. Republicans have also pointed to the symbolic value of a woman leading the GOP, as women have remained deeply wary of Trump.
One senior RNC insider agreed that the party would need to continue broadening its reach, even though Trump was able to win without a diverse coalition behind him and has not personally seemed interested in shifting his approach. “When you turn on the TV during the national convention and everyone is white,” the source said, “that’s not how you grow the party.”
But McDaniel and the GOP hope to grow the party among women and minorities while also keeping Trump’s supporters in the fold, many of whom are not staunch Republicans and skeptical of the party establishment.
Trump’s “movement gave the forgotten and ignored a voice and the power to bring change to Washington,” McDaniel said in her remarks earlier this month, in a nod to Trump’s contingent. “As chairwoman, it will be my priority to amplify those voices who spoke loud and clear last November.”
The challenge of consolidating the party’s natural base and the president’s core supporters is not necessarily unique to this president and his RNC. “There’s always a bridge that has to be built between those loyal to the candidate and those loyal to the party,” said Gilmore.
But the freighted history between Trump and the committee, and his evolving views of the Republican Party, might bring more baggage to the process than usual.
One question is the extent to which the president will agree to help raise money for the committee, an exercise that was a source of some public annoyance for Trump during the presidential campaign.
“When the president signs a fundraising email, that gets a much broader response than if it’s just the chair,” said Doug Heye, a Republican strategist and former RNC communications director. “We don’t know what Trump’s going to do yet on events, but those are massively helpful.”
Last month, the RNC announced it had raised $16.2 million in December, bringing its total cash on hand to $25.3 million.
That fundraising, McDaniel said in a statement, puts the RNC “in prime position to amplify President Trump’s message of change, support Republicans on Capitol Hill, and help Republicans running in statewide races this year achieve victory.”
“We will also continue to build out the election-winning field program that helped deliver the most historic Republican win of all-time,” McDaniel continued. “The future is bright at the RNC, and we will remain committed to raising the resources we need to keep winning at all levels.”
The committee’s first test under McDaniel looms in 2018, when Republicans will defend their majorities in the House and Senate — a major source of fuel for Trump’s governing agenda. Although the Senate map will likely favor Republicans, the GOP has not forgotten the lessons of the 2010 election, Obama’s first midterm as president, when Democrats lost the House in a powerful Republican wave and nearly lost grip on the Senate, too.
“The reason you embrace the RNC is because you now want to convert your success for House and Senate races moving forward, and you need the party apparatus,” said Gilmore. “And I expect that would be the objective for Trump.”
Whereas Priebus enjoyed broad latitude in his role as chairman to steer messaging and strategy, however, McDaniel’s style will likely be limited by the whims of the White House and Trump himself.
“It is true that if you’re RNC chairman with a Democrat president, you have much more latitude to lead in the direction you want to go,” Gilmore said. As Gilmore did during the Bush administration, the new committee leadership will likely “help carry out political objectives” on behalf of the president. “That’s the basic role.”
It is still early, of course, with McDaniel still hiring senior staff and furniture still being moved into the RNC offices. But the committee has already begun to reorient itself for the Trump era: in December, the RNC hosted its Christmas party at Trump’s swanky Washington hotel.