It’s important to state at the outset that the Republican National Committee doesn’t matter. The Republican National Committee itself has seen to that. I don’t mean that the RNC doesn’t perform the vital organizational tasks for which it was established: fundraising for candidates, organizing the quadrennial GOP nominating convention, setting and enforcing rules around primaries and debates, and the like. It no longer matters insofar as the organization has all but abdicated its erstwhile role as an arbiter of what it means to be a Republican. And the committee’s members appear to be fine with that.
The RNC used to play a central role in developing and promoting the Republican Party’s governing agenda. But the GOP hasn’t produced a platform statement since 2016. It was a document once derided, even by the GOP’s supporters, as a facile positioning statement—simultaneously too uncompromising to appeal to the average voter and yet toothless to the point that elected Republicans routinely ignored it. In 2020, crafting a set of unifying principles was outsourced to the Trump campaign, which produced a list of aspirational governmental objectives unmoored to any political philosophy, moral sentiment, or value judgment.
The RNC once devoted itself to imposing discipline on the unwieldy collection of personalities that rose to the political fore in the age of Tea Party politics. In 2014—a year in which party elites hopped off the referee’s chair and intervened in the primary process to (successfully) prevent as many unnecessary losses in November as possible—the central committee ran a “comms college” for operatives and candidates alike. It was a vital corrective after 2012, former RNC Chairman Reince Priebus confessed, after witnessing candidates up and down the ballot careen from one bad news cycle to the next. “I’d rather have candidates being careful to a fault than, you know, having a fountain of blabber coming out of their mouth that’s not disciplined,” said the man who would become Donald Trump’s first chief of staff. Times do change.
If the RNC has one central role, it is to ensure its candidates win elections. That’s all a party is, after all: a vehicle to achieve political victories. Parties are supposed to be dispassionate enterprises. They’re not ideological ventures or platforms for aspiring celebrities. When a party fails in its singular mission, it’s reasonable to expect that stakeholders will take exception to that and demand some changes. But that’s not how today’s RNC operates.
Ronna McDaniel—formerly Ronna Romney McDaniel, until her own name and its association with an anti-Trump deviationist became a liability—has led the RNC through a series of consecutive failures. She presided over the party in 2018, when it lost control of the House. She presided over it in 2020, when it lost the White House and the Senate. She presided over it in 2022, when the party failed to take advantage of historic (and historically rare) headwinds. And still, a majority of the RNC’s voting members have endorsed her reelection to a role she has so badly mismanaged.
McDaniel’s position appears so unassailable that Rep. Lee Zeldin, a congressman from New York who came within striking distance of the governor’s mansion in 2022 and who had toyed with the idea of running the GOP’s national committee, bowed out. “Change is desperately needed, and there are many leaders, myself included, ready and willing to step up to ensure our party retools and transforms as critical elections fast approach,” Zeldin wrote, “namely the 2024 Presidential and Congressional races.” But, he confessed, it seems like the RNC is committed to leaving it to McDaniel to execute that mission.
McDaniel isn’t running unopposed. She faces a challenge from fellow committeewoman Harmeet Dhillon, a Trump-linked attorney who announced her candidacy on Fox News Channel’s “Tucker Carlson Tonight.” When it comes to the nuts and bolts of campaigning, Dhillon has offered some constructive criticisms of how the GOP conducts itself. But she also insists that the GOP is a “populist party” and its base “demands populist messages that speak to them”—not “chamber of commerce messages,” “neocon messages,” or “warmonger messages.” As if the foremost sin of the modern GOP is that it doesn’t flatter the pretensions of its populist elements enough.
Presumably, this observation led Dhillon to indulge in paranoid ramblings about “systemic problems” with vote-tabulating machines in 2020 and deeming the FBI’s patently justified search of Mar-a-Lago’s premises “purely” political.
It doesn’t seem like Dhillon’s challenge to the RNC’s leadership will succeed. Maybe that’s just as well, seeing as it doesn’t sound like much within the organization would change if she did succeed. That’s just how the RNC seems to like it. It’s less a committee now, Republican or otherwise. It’s more like a club. The tragedy here is that Republican voters really do have policy preferences. Moreover, they really do want to see those preferences enacted by their elected representatives because they believe security and prosperity depend on it. The committee doesn’t care about those preferences enough even to write them down, much less course correct to ensure that they might one day become law.
If this social organization has a primary function, it is the preservation of the sinecures it provides party elites. Ensuring its continued existence is predicated upon your willingness to keep writing checks. It’s no coincidence that cashing checks is one of the few core functions at which the RNC remains quite adept.