Why the Republican Party Just Can’t Quit Trump
The results of the 2022 midterms have not been good news for Donald Trump or the Republican Party. When the final loss came in last week — the defeat of Trump favorite Herschel Walker in Georgia’s Senate runoff — the intraparty recriminations began immediately.
Rep. Lee Zeldin of New York, the GOP candidate who lost his race for New York governor, said “change is desperately needed.” Laura Ingraham, the Fox News host, said she was “pissed.”
“We don’t change anything,” Ingraham said. “We just keep doing the same thing over and over again.”
The knives were especially out for Ronna McDaniel, the current Republican National Committee chair, a Trump uber-loyalist who has announced that she’s running again for the party’s top job. Internal communications obtained by POLITICO revealed the party’s internal debate over her performance.
“No RNC Chair in the history of the whole party has lasted as long as Ronna McDaniel without seeing at least one winning election season,” Erick Erickson, the conservative radio host, wrote on Twitter. “She took the job in 2017, and the GOP has lost every election cycle since.”
McDaniel will draw at least some challenges when RNC members meet to determine the chairmanship at their meeting in California next month. Although Zeldin considered but has declined to run against her, Harmeet Dhillon, a RNC committee member whose firm represents Trump, is going ahead with a challenge. So is Mike Lindell, the MyPillow CEO and election denier. But McDaniel is favored in Republican circles to win a fourth term; McDaniel has a letter endorsing her candidacy signed by more than half of the committee members, so the outcome, as Zeldin complained, may be “pre-baked.”
Notably, however, all of McDaniel’s potential challengers are Trump loyalists like her. More establishment types remain thoroughly sidelined in the party, despite the electoral failures of the former president and his allies.
To understand why Trump and McDaniel have such staying power, I called up Michael Steele, a former RNC chair and former Maryland lieutenant governor, who broke with Trump and endorsed President Joe Biden in 2020 but still is a Republican.
Steele explained that in the years since Trump came on the political scene, MAGA loyalists have come to dominate the party apparatus, particularly at the state level. So even if some national politicians and party members want to go another direction, it’s not so easy to change course.
“If you look at state party organizations, it’s the MAGA strain of Republicanism that’s become dominant,” Steele explained. “And they’re willing to change the rules, they’re willing to ignore an insurrection, refer to it as just ‘political discourse.’ All of that stuff coming out of the national party is a reflection of what’s happening inside the party across the states.”
The post-midterm recriminations are a signal that dissent is growing, Steele said, but there’s little sign that it’s enough to loosen the former president’s hold on the party. He puts the odds that Trump is the party’s 2024 nominee at 80 percent. Which means that the Republican Party’s fortunes are still firmly tied to Trump, for better or for worse.
“A party is not going to survive when it is fixated on the ramblings and musings of one person who, in the main, is not a Republican, is not a conservative, but has very effectively used both of those values to secure his political power,” Steele said. “And there have been a lot of people inside the party willing to compromise those values in order for him to do that.”
This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.
Siders: For all the criticism McDaniel has drawn for the party’s performance during her tenure, it looks like it will be hard for anyone to dislodge her. Why is that?
Steele: Ronna’s not stupid. She went out and secured 100 signatures of endorsement of the 168 RNC members. So now it becomes a question of, do any of those 100 people peel off of her for someone else, which is a very tough thing to do? The reality of it is she had the backing of the former president, she has the backing of at least 100 members in writing, and she has been able to pretty much provide the members what they’ve wanted.
So, when you look at this new effort around her potential reelection, to me it signals that at least a portion of the members are fed up with all the losing because they were promised a lot of winning. She has not been able to deliver on that.
Siders: So why does she still seem to have the support of a majority of the RNC?
Steele: Probably a lot of folks who are themselves very much anchored to Trump know that this is Trump’s person. Trump hasn’t come out and indicated that he thinks the party should go in a different direction, or that he has somebody else that he wants in that job. She has served well providing the cover that Trump has needed — paid his legal bills, paid personal bills for the Trump family out of RNC funds, which I’ve always found to be problematic.
The reality of it is the RNC changed the rules to help Trump to avoid primary challenges in the ’20 cycle, or even in sort of gilding the lily to help him secure the nomination in ‘16, to prevent others, like Sen. Ted Cruz, who wanted to have a floor challenge, because people then still believed he was not the best candidate to go into the fall election.
Siders: McDaniel was hand-picked by Trump. But how did the RNC come to be so dominated by Trump loyalists in the first place?
Steele: Well, they were home grown. There were people inside the party who liked him, and then after that ‘16 cycle, they started taking over state parties. These MAGA heads started taking over state parties, which means that they became chair and national committeemen and committeewomen, which means they would get to sit on the committee. So, you have this process where, through the elections at the state level, Trump supporters were reinforced with other Trump supporters who were getting elected. And if you look at state party organizations, it’s the MAGA strain of Republicanism that’s become dominant. And they’re willing to change the rules, they’re willing to ignore an insurrection, refer to it as just “political discourse.” All of that stuff coming out of the national party is a reflection of what’s happening inside the party across the states. Ronna doesn’t go on national television and refer to an insurrection of our government as typical political discourse unless there’s a sentiment inside the party that supports that view.
Siders: It does seem that an increasing number of Republicans, after the midterms, are beginning to sour on Trump. Do you get any sense of a shift inside the RNC?
Steele: There’s a little bit. We’re party people. Why are we in the party? To win elections. And when you’re not winning, when you’re putting up the kind of candidates that we’re putting up, you begin to realize the limits that someone like Trump brings to the game. Yes, the base loves him. Yes, some of our major donors love him. But there comes a point where you’ve got to balance that against whether or not you’re actually winning elections. And in the process of not winning, you’re becoming less and less of a political factor, and you’re becoming more and more marginalized by those types of candidates that we’ve seen in the last couple of cycles.
Siders: But the RNC itself is still Trump’s, right?
Steele: As far as I can see, yes.
Siders: Why hasn’t it been able to move away from him?
Steele: Because that hard, 30 percent of the Republican base doesn’t want to, and when the state party operations are run by those very same people, they’re not going to go away from Trump that easily. So, what does the national chairwoman do? How does she navigate that space? And a party is not going to survive when it is fixated on the ramblings and musings of one person who, in the main, is not a Republican, is not a conservative, but has very effectively used both of those values to secure his political power. And there have been a lot of people inside the party willing to compromise those values in order for him to do that. And so, for Ronna, the challenge for her is what do you do? Well, she answered that question for me when Donald Trump told her to stop using the Romney name. And she did. I knew then where this was going to go.
Siders: You think it’s time for McDaniel to move on?
Steele: She’s not winning elections. Shit, I got fired after getting the most seats we’ve ever gotten in almost 100 years. So, I don’t know how you justify it. I mean, sure, you may not have liked my style or the way I talked about stuff, but damn, I know how to win campaigns, if that’s your standard. If that’s no longer your standard, OK, then she stays. To be clear, it’s not just her, it’s the state parties, as well. I mean, the 168 RNC members like to sit around and think they’re blameless for a lot of the shit that goes on inside the party. But they’re just as culpable and problematic in dealing with some of these things as anyone else. And so, you don’t get to isolate just her. It’s easy to do, because she’s the chair. But at the end of the day, 168 members also have a say in that.
Siders: Does it even make a difference then, to the direction of the RNC, if she’s reelected?
Steele: Probably not. Someone comes in, what are they going to do differently? We had an autopsy, we spent all this money after 2012, only to ignore it when Trump said, “I’m not doing this, I’m not saying this. No, I don’t want to reach out to Hispanics because I think Mexicans are murderers and rapists.” And the party said nothing. So, I don’t know what firing Ronna is going to gain the party at this point, unless someone comes in and goes, “You know what, we’re shutting down Trump Inc. inside the GOP, and Trump will be no different than any other candidate who’s announced for the presidency in this cycle. And if he steps out of line, I’m going to smack his hand.” That person is not emerging out of this group of leaders inside the party.
Siders: How much of a difference will it make in the 2024 presidential primary that the RNC has been shaped so much by Trump?
Steele: It’s going to make a huge difference. I’ve talked to some folks who are privately wishing and hoping that Trump is sitting in a holding cell somewhere by the time we get to ‘24, right? So that tells me the level of anxiety that people have inside the party about Trump being allowed to roam free over the political landscape over the next 18 months. And I don’t know how the party exorcises that demon, because if you want to heal yourself, you’ve got to want to get better, right? And if you’re not willing to do the things that are required to make you get better, to help you get better, you’re going to stay sick.
Siders: You endorsed Joe Biden 2020. How likely do you think it is Republicans nominate a more traditionalist Republican in 2024?
Steele: I’d say the odds are about 20 percent. It’s 80 percent Trump or someone who’s cut out of that cloth — again, not going to sell across the country. Because remember, we don’t get to walk away from the stain that we put on ourselves. You just can’t put on a clean shirt and think that no one notices the smell that’s still there. We’ve done too much. We’ve said too much. The deafening silence on the heels of Trump having dinner with Nazis and antisemites. I mean, come on.
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