Politics & Policy

Republicans Gird for Post-Election Battle over RNC

RNC chairman Reince Priebus (Photo: Gage Skidmore)
As Election Day looms, the committee’s role in the GOP’s future is shaping up as a subject of intense debate.

In 1968, Vice President Hubert Humphrey became the Democratic presidential nominee without winning a single primary, when Party delegates snatched the nomination from Minnesota’s anti-war senator, Eugene McCarthy, whom they considered a sure loser in a general election against Richard Nixon. The resulting riots, and Nixon’s subsequent landslide victory in the electoral college, prompted Democrats to enact a series of reforms that diminished both parties’ roles in the nominating process.

The days when back-room maneuvering could deliver the presidential nomination to a candidate such as Humphrey are long gone. The populist tenor of the 2016 campaign underscored the weakness of party insiders: The Republican National Committee (RNC) sat idly by as Donald Trump — a man with no political experience, dubious conservative credentials, and substantial electability problems — waltzed to the GOP nomination.

The day after the publication of the now-infamous 2005 Access Hollywood tape on which he is heard bragging about making unwanted sexual advances toward women, Trump was set to appear at a fundraiser for the Wisconsin Republican Party alongside RNC chairman Reince Priebus, a Wisconsin native, House speaker Paul Ryan, also a Wisconsinite, and several other local GOP officials, including Wisconsin governor Scott Walker. But when news of the tape’s contents upended the presidential race and threatened to derail the campaigns of dozens of down-ballot candidates, it was Ryan, not Priebus, who stepped in to rescind Trump’s invitation, issuing a statement indicating that he would no longer appear at the event. The following day, Priebus stayed by Trump’s side in New York City as the nominee prepared for the third presidential debate, and the Wisconsin fundraiser proceeded in their absence.

The event was a reminder of the many times this election season that the interests of top Republicans have clashed — and of the fact that Priebus, the ostensible head of the party, has been silent even as his candidacy has damaged other party members. Among the debates that will roil the GOP after the election, one of the most contentious will surround the role the RNC played in Trump’s rise, and the role it should play in the nominating process and in American politics more broadly going forward.

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Heading into the 2016 election cycle, Priebus was optimistic. He approached the job in large part like a competent technocrat, digging the institution out of a financial hole and compressing the primary calendar that had in 2012 produced a drawn-out battle between the Republican candidates and weakened the eventual nominee. He also made attempts to shape the party ideologically, commissioning a so-called autopsy report in the wake of the 2012 campaign that warned the GOP could not rely on an aging, white voter base to win presidential elections and urged Republicans to engage with minority communities, embrace comprehensive immigration reform, and soften its stance on gay marriage. Critics contend that he has more or less abandoned the report’s vision of a kinder, gentler party in Trump’s wake. “He is running a campaign completely at odds with that report,” says Vin Weber, a Republican strategist and former Minnesota congressman. Priebus did not respond to a request for comment.

There is some historical precedent for the disarray Republicans find themselves in now. In the mid-70’s, the party, still reeling from Watergate, found itself out of power and out of favor with voters. Describing the party coalitions in the wake of Jimmy Carter’s 1976 victory, the political scientist Everett Carll Ladd called Democrats the “Everyone Party” — as in, “The Democrats lead the Republicans in every region, among all religious groups, among virtually all ethnic groups.”

The populist tenor of the 2016 campaign underscored the weakness of party insiders.

Many Republicans are now looking back to the RNC chairmanship of former Tennessee senator Bill Brock, who stepped into the breach at that moment and saw the party from its low point in 1976 through to Ronald Reagan’s 1980 victory and beyond. Brock rebuilt the party by implementing an aggressive fundraising program and  intervening in some primary contests. He also inserted the RNC into the larger battle of ideas, founding the journal Commonsense in 1978. In his introductory letter to the first issue, he wrote that the publication was aimed at those who “value the concept of political parties as instruments for the introduction of ideas into the policy debate.”

It was a concept his successor, Haley Barbour, who chaired the RNC from 1993 to 1997, sought to revive with an affiliated organization, the National Policy Forum, which solicited the views of Republicans around the country on subjects from health care to foreign policy and the environment. “People were dying to say, ‘Here’s what we think about the issues,’” Barbour says. “We shared that with the House, the Senate, the governors, the legislators, and then we kept building on it. . . . We’ve gotta regain our position as the party of ideas.”

Many Republican intellectuals, party elders, and lawmakers, however, refuse to pin the committee’s current predicament on Priebus’s failure to stave off Trump’s candidacy or to engage more forcefully in the battle of ideas. They point instead to a series of systemic changes over the past two decades that they say have emasculated political parties, leaving Priebus without any viable way to reclaim the RNC’s clout.

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Those changes started with the 2002 McCain Feingold Act, which capped donations to party committees, diverting much of the money spent on elections to outside groups. “The campaign-finance-reform laws that have been passed have all produced just the opposite results that the proponents claimed and the results that the opponents expected,” says Barbour. “That is, it’s driven money away from the campaigns and away from the parties to other groups.” A series of court decisions that culminated with the Supreme Court’s 2010 ruling in the Citizens United case exacerbated the effect by legalizing unlimited, anonymous donations to those outside groups. “That in my judgment is the principal problem with the Citizens United decision,” says Weber, who supports the Court’s ruling. “It’s really weakened parties because there are other places competing for the dollars.”

Among the party’s traditional roles is what one longtime Republican activist calls the “three ems”: raising money, messaging, and mobilizing voters. But the exodus of funds to outside groups has meant that the RNC “no longer has the funds to do those things as robustly as the outside groups and is no longer the biggest spender in any of those categories,” says Ben Ginsberg, a top Republican lawyer at the Washington, D.C. firm Jones Day. And as power and money have flowed to outside groups, so too has top talent, leaving the national committee bereft of the sort of operatives capable of combating the headwinds. “The institutional degradation of the party because of McCain Feingold and things like that yields you a Reince Priebus,” says one former GOP operative.

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“The consequences are large and the situation is dire,” says Jonathan Rauch, who in July wrote a widely circulated cover story for The Atlantic, “How American Politics Went Insane.” In the piece, Rauch, too, pointed the finger at good-government reforms, including campaign-finance regulations, for the rise of candidates unaffiliated with traditional political parties, such as Trump and the independent Bernie Sanders, and those who make a name for themselves campaigning against their own party, such as Texas senator Ted Cruz. “Political parties no longer have either intelligible boundaries or enforceable norms, and, as a result, renegade political behavior pays,” he wrote.

Rauch says all of this has a cost, because parties do, or at least used to, perform unique and indispensable tasks, among them assembling large political coalitions and selecting candidates acceptable to a broad portion of the electorate. That’s a controversial view today, as evidenced by the reaction to the publication of hacked e-mails that revealed how Democratic National Committee staffers were working quietly to tip the scales in Hillary Clinton’s favor, which resulted in the dismissal of then DNC chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz. “When I was party chairman we scrupulously did not endorse, or try to assist, or try to defeat anybody for the presidential nomination,” says Barbour. “Trump was not my choice for president, but he got 43 percent of the Republican vote, so who am I to say that I think we should substitute my role for theirs?”

#related#Weber, the former congressman, disagrees. If Republican delegates wanted to replace Trump atop the ballot at the convention, “they should’ve been allowed to do so,” he says. “There is such a thing as maintaining the basic integrity and mission of a political party as a private organization.”

“There you have a fundamental debate today about what the party is for: Is it just there to serve as a mechanism to nominate whoever the people choose, or does it have its own interests?” Rauch asks. The latter, he says — an institution with a set of particular interests distinct from the will of primary voters — no longer captures “the reality of what the Republican party, or for that matter the Democratic party, is.”

If Trump loses on Tuesday, as most expect him to, what the reality could and should be in the future will become the subject of heated debate in Republican circles starting on Wednesday.


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