Who can right the RNC ship?

It’s a tall order to have less than a year both to reform the GOP’s primary party machine and deliver a win in a presidential election

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From our July 2024 issue

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It was September of 2014 and Republicans were very nervous. A new poll showed Kansas senator Pat Roberts trailing his independent challenger Greg Orman by seven points. The GOP needed a net gain of six seats to win the Senate majority — and the last thing they needed to worry about was Democrats ousting one of their incumbents. The party called in Chris LaCivita, a retired Marine and longtime Republican operative with a reputation for taking no prisoners, to turn the race around.

“Months out from Election Day, LaCivita went to the NRSC [National Republican Senatorial…

It was September of 2014 and Republicans were very nervous. A new poll showed Kansas senator Pat Roberts trailing his independent challenger Greg Orman by seven points. The GOP needed a net gain of six seats to win the Senate majority — and the last thing they needed to worry about was Democrats ousting one of their incumbents. The party called in Chris LaCivita, a retired Marine and longtime Republican operative with a reputation for taking no prisoners, to turn the race around.

“Months out from Election Day, LaCivita went to the NRSC [National Republican Senatorial Committee] and said, ‘Tell me what I need to know about this race because I’m flying out tomorrow and we’re gonna fuck shit up,’” a GOP consultant recalled.

Some politicos chafed at LaCivita’s aggressive approach to the race, but Roberts ultimately won by more than ten points.

“LaCivita has been seen throughout his career as a fixer of less-than-ideal situations,” the consultant asserted. “He’s a hard-charging, no-bullshit guy — an effective old-school political operative.”

That sounds like good news for the Republican National Committee, which is desperate for someone who can right the ship in the post-Ronna McDaniel era.

LaCivita has taken over the RNC, along with new co-chairs Michael Whatley and Lara Trump. Whatley previously served as the chair of the North Carolina GOP and was well respected in the state, particularly after Ted Budd won out in a tight Senate race against Democrat Cheri Beasley, one of the few bright spots in a disappointing midterm cycle for Republicans. Lara Trump, meanwhile, has been praised for her fundraising prowess and her tough work ethic. She acknowledged in an interview with the Associated Press that she has a “big learning curve” at the RNC but noted that she has experience working on all three of her father-in-law’s presidential campaigns.

“I think Whatley is a great guy, LaCivita knows what he’s doing, Sean [Cairncross] makes himself available to everyone and nobody really walks around with this holier-than-thou chip on their shoulder that Ronna had some of,” a former RNC staffer, who left for reasons unrelated to the leadership transition, told The Spectator. Initial reports about the Trump takeover of the RNC raised concerns that the committee would effectively serve as a slush fund for the campaign. Charlie Spies, a top GOP lawyer, was forced out of the RNC not long after he was hired, allegedly due to insufficient loyalty to Trump. Trump, according to a previous report from The Spectator, directed the brutal firing of dozens of RNC staff because he wanted “shock and awe.” However, the RNC either already has or is planning to rehire most of the people caught in the cull. “Only a handful of folks got screwed,” the former staffer noted.

A number of RNC staffers were tapped to move to Florida and work on the campaign to supplement the skeleton crew that got Trump through the primaries. While the DeSantis campaign had hundreds of staff during the primary, Trump maybe had dozens.

“By combining forces and operations, the Trump campaign and RNC are deploying operations that are fueled by passionate volunteers who care about saving America and firing Joe Biden,” LaCivita told The Spectator in a statement over email. “We do not feel obligated however to discuss the specifics of our strategy, timing and tactics with members of the News Media.”

Lara Trump has also confirmed that the RNC is not planning to use donations to pay for Trump’s legal bills, despite the failure of a resolution to codify the ban proposed by Mississippi RNC member Henry Barbour in February.

How the RNC should interface with the Trump campaign was of course one of the debates that led to McDaniel’s getting the boot earlier this year after becoming the longest-serving RNC chair. She was knocked by Trump’s allies for running a faux-neutral primary in which everyone realistically knew Trump was going to be the nominee. Team Trump also allegedly chafed that McDaniel decoupled herself from the Trump campaign after the former president installed her as RNC chair in 2017 and tacitly supported her through an attempted leadership coup in 2022. Some observers chalked up her departure to a long-term pressure campaign by pro-Trump RNC committee member Tyler Bowyer and his friends at the youth activist organization Turning Point USA.

But McDaniel’s attempt to split the baby earned her plenty of enemies from Trump’s challengers too, who bristled at the notion that they had to spend precious campaign resources early in the cycle to meet the RNC’s rigorous debate criteria while Trump refused to participate.

More importantly, there were problems at the RNC under McDaniel’s leadership that were bigger and more entrenched than anything directly related to Trump. For one, outside of the joint fundraising committee with the Trump campaign, McDaniel had a difficult time meeting fundraising goals. McDaniel raised $11.6 million in January and $10.6 million in February; the RNC raised more than $32 million in April, the first full month with the new leadership team in place.

Others felt McDaniel did not have the killer instinct needed to win in an era of left-wing lawfare and a hopelessly biased media landscape. “Ronna did need to go, but more so because of her attitude. Despite being handpicked by Trump she was still hanging onto the old ways of politics. Pretending it’s a nice, statesmanlike game,” the former RNC staffer said. In one instance toward the end of her tenure, the communications team at the RNC was told to back off of hammering NBC for a shoddy article. McDaniel was worried that it could jeopardize her negotiations with the network to obtain an on-air commentator position. McDaniel would eventually join NBC, but the network canceled her contract in less than a week amid complaints from left-leaning staff. “Contrast that with the new order, they are here for a knife fight. They know the current media landscape well, what works for Trump and how to hit the left,” the staffer asserted. Since Trump’s conviction on thirty-four counts in a May trial that many considered at best a political prosecution, it’s even more important for Republicans to have someone at the helm who is willing to take the gloves off.

A GOP consultant who works with the RNC argued that another major problem facing the organization was administrative bloat coupled with a lack of real metrics of success. The LaCivita-led team is supposedly getting rid of so-called “vanity metrics” — number of doors knocked or voters contacted — that don’t tell the whole story. “None of that measures quality. They’re just macro numbers,” the consultant noted. McDaniel also spent a not-insignificant amount of time and money on what’s known as “SIs” or “special initiatives,” which usually referred to outreach efforts aimed at black and Latino voters. The new RNC leadership shuttered a series of community centers opened under these programs; some sources told The Spectator they believed McDaniel was using them more for positive media coverage than as a real attempt to court minority voters.

Instead, the RNC launched a new gun owners’ coalition with the Trump campaign and a new tool called VotePro, a get-out-the-vote program the RNC calls a “one-stop shop” for Republican voters. Through VotePro, people can register to vote, check their registration status, request a mail-in ballot, commit to vote in-person on Election Day and find their voting location. VotePro is part of a larger effort for the RNC to bank as many votes as possible before Election Day as Trump and his allies have called on the GOP to do more in favor of election integrity. In April, the RNC announced another program to have 100,000 volunteers and attorneys deployed in battleground states to provide rapid response services when poll watchers report irregularities during the November election.

“Election integrity is the foundation of our democracy,” Whatley said. “Through this unprecedented program, we are mobilizing lawyers and volunteers who are committed to preserving the sanctity of our elections.”

Many observers will look to this month’s convention in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, as the first real stress test of the new RNC regime, but most of the convention staff has been in place for over a year. Planning and operations were likely uninterrupted by the leadership turnover at the HQ in Washington, DC.

“The Committee on Arrangements for the 2024 Republican National Convention has been on the ground in Milwaukee for over a year laying the groundwork to create a world-class production,” Kush Desai, the deputy communications director for the convention, told The Spectator. “With over 50,000 delegates, officials, guests and members of the media set to descend on Milwaukee in July, no stone has been left unturned to ensure a memorable and safe convention experience.”

Of course, even the best laid plans can’t account for the nominee being sent to prison. Most legal experts agree Trump likely won’t serve time, but his sentencing hearing will take place just four days before the Milwaukee convention.

November will be the true indicator of the new RNC regime’s effectiveness. Of course, the hyperfocus on the top of the ticket has some congressional and Senate campaign officials concerned that they won’t be able to rely on the RNC for money or organizing. The plan seems to be instead that a rising Trump will lift all boats. While Joe Biden is underperforming Democratic Senate candidates in swing states, Trump is out-performing down-ballot Republicans. This is a huge shift from the previous two elections where Trump was seen as a net drag on the party.

No matter how you shake it, it’s a tall order to have less than a year both to reform the GOP’s primary party machine and deliver a win in a presidential election. But working well under pressure appears to be LaCivita’s specialty.

“If anyone can turn the RNC into the machine it needs to be to absolutely slaughter the Democrats, it’s Chris LaCivita,” a GOP consultant remarked.

This article was originally published in The Spectator’s July 2024 World edition.

Amber Duke is The Spectator’s Washington editor and host of Unfit to Print on WCBM 680. She is the author of The Snowflakes’ Revolt: How Woke Millennials Hijacked American Media. Amber was previously White House correspondent for the Daily Caller and a co-host of O’Connor & Company on WMAL.

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