It was Donald Trump who, in December 2016, tapped Ronna Romney McDaniel to run the Republican National Committee. Trump and the party were ascendant, holding majorities in both chambers of Congress and nearly two-thirds of state governorships. McDaniel (who, The Washington Post reported, dropped the “Romney” at Trump’s behest) would be the party’s shepherd.
Her tenure will probably come to an end in the coming months, thanks to a reversal of confidence from the now-former president. Since she took over, the party has lost the presidency, lost control of the Senate, barely held the House and lost almost a fifth of its governors.
Blame for those federal losses, though, doesn’t lie with McDaniel as much as it does with Trump.
Running a national party is a strange task. It’s a lot of fundraising overlaid onto significantly less steering the party toward ideal candidates and electoral matchups. In the modern era, success generally means securing a slightly bigger share of the vote to effect a thin legislative majority. Success is often a game of inches.
The GOP has held the White House for 12 of the past 25 years. Their caucuses in the House and Senate have wavered above and below the midpoint in each chamber, rarely at significant distances. They’ve done better in state houses and state capitols, thanks to the preponderance of rural, red states.
Really, the pattern over the past 25 years has been one of feast or famine: The GOP was crushed in 2006 and 2008, ascendant in 2010 and 2014 and wobbly in 2018. The past four RNC chairs have steered the party in that period, overseeing a spectrum of political influence.
If we compare the start and end of the most recent chairpeople, though, you can see why Republicans might be frustrated with McDaniel. Under Michael Steele — in position during the 2010 red wave — the party gained in state capitals and on Capitol Hill. Reince Priebus, at the RNC from 2011 to 2017, oversaw additional gains — including the White House, to which he headed when Trump took office.
And then came McDaniel.
Even setting aside the Trump issue, McDaniel was in a tough position. A party that holds the White House and both chambers of Congress has nowhere to go but down, as Democrats who were active in their party in 2009 can tell you. But it is nonetheless the case that, during her tenure, the party gave up all of those majorities. The GOP regained the House in early 2023, but even that was an underperformance: Historic trends suggested that a first-term president’s party should lose far more seats than President Biden’s Democrats did.
But again, the blame here isn’t solely — or even primarily — on McDaniel.
Trump’s victory in 2016 cemented him as the party’s leader, and he has refused to relinquish that title since, despite losing in 2020. The 2018 midterms, in which the Democrats romped, were a referendum on Trump more than anything. So were most of the special elections that occurred during Trump’s presidency: Voters came out in droves to vote against Trump’s party. In 2020, most Biden voters informed pollsters that their votes were meant as a ballot against Trump rather than for the Democrat.
Recent polling shows that’s once again the case, that anticipated 2024 votes are about Trump rather than Biden. In 2022, the Republican underperformance was heavily influenced by abortion politics, something that Trump effected by virtue of his Supreme Court appointments. But 2022 was also in part about Trumpism, particularly in Senate races where he anointed Republican nominees who went on to lose seemingly winnable races.
None of this absolves McDaniel of culpability, of course. She retained her position over the years in part by bending over backward to accommodate Trump’s whims. Deploying a stronger guiding hand might have shifted some electoral outcomes but also meant she was more rapidly shunted off to new employment. Nor can we say that Trump is responsible for the party’s recent fundraising issues.
But it is certainly not fair to suggest that the Republican Party lost political power since 2017 primarily because of McDaniel. The decline was in keeping with historic patterns. It was also significantly exacerbated by the party’s real leader, the one who picked McDaniel to run the Republican National Committee in the first place.