It hasn’t been a great week for the Republican National Committee.
Amid unprecedented intraparty division over Donald Trump as the presumptive GOP nominee for president, party officials took a beating. The RNC was roundly mocked for @GOP’s tweet that Republicans are “better” for their primary campaign — “I assume this is a parody account,” tweeted Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb. — and Chairman Reince Priebus is now having to answer for House Speaker Paul Ryan’s declaration that he cannot yet support Trump.
So how culpable are Priebus and his colleagues like chief RNC strategist Sean Spicer for their party’s current predicament? Is it fair for anti-Trump Republicans to blame them for failing to stop the Donald?
A number of operatives close to the RNC defended the work of party leadership, but others, speaking on the condition of anonymity, had candid and colorful comments on the subject.
One senior operative on a 2016 campaign argued that the presidential primary first got off the rails during the debates. The operative said Priebus “committed professional malpractice” and was “guilty of extreme negligence” for failing to act when Trump refused to pledge support to the eventual Republican nominee.
“He blinked,” the operative said of the chairman. “He choked, and Trump knew then that he would be able — should he get enough traction and stir up enough vitriol — to use the Republican Party the same way a virus targets a weakened host. And now, our party faces the very real possibility of being on life support in the near future.”
The operative also thinks Spicer worked the primary to his personal advantage.
“Spicer was running the whole thing looking out most for his future opportunities and getting a tingle up his leg from feeling like the powerbroker Reince didn’t have the balls to be. Reince was too busy trying to play kissyface with the entirety of the Republican operative class that was sprinkled across all 17 candidates.”
Another senior GOP operative who’s worked on multiple presidential campaigns in prior cycles tells InsideSources, “Reince and Sean have always been more concerned with their images in White House Correspondents Dinner-attending, selfie-taking DC Fishbowl than their actual jobs of promoting and protecting Republican principles,” the operative said. “As a consequence they may have just handed the Democrats the White House and maybe even the Senate and House.”
Several operatives complained that Spicer in particular has been more concerned about his own political future than that of the RNC. According to a report in Politico, Spicer now has his friends referring to him as “Mr. Chairman” as he looks to be Priebus’ successor.
All of these worries echo ongoing criticism of the RNC for failing to broaden the GOP’s appeal to voters who comprise a general election electorate. Exhibit A was the abandonment of the 2013 “autopsy” report, a document released by the party following the 2012 campaign and formally titled the “Growth and Opportunity Project.”
Some operatives have long spoken privately that the report was never more than an attempt to hoodwink donors and the media that action was being taken to address the GOP’s data deficit and reach out to more minority voters. Particularly, many now worry about the RNC’s failure in its approach to the issue of immigration.
“If Hispanic Americans perceive that a GOP nominee or candidate does not want them in the United States (i.e., self-deportation), they will not pay attention to our next sentence,” the report said. “It does not matter what we say about education, jobs or the economy; if Hispanics think we do not want them here, they will close their ears to our policies.”
Instead of following this advice and moving to “embrace and champion comprehensive immigration reform,” the party went the way of Trump, who has promised a “deportation force” to round up the undocumented and expel them from the country.
Even before this year’s campaign, the GOP failed to achieve any meaningful Latino outreach. “There is no presence of any type of effort within the communities that is visible or having a lasting impact,” Stephen Viramontes, a Hispanic conservative activist based in Arizona, recently told InsideSources.
Separately, others see a failure by the party to protect its own brand from the rise of Trump. One of the operatives InsideSources spoke to wondered why the RNC didn’t fund “an outside project with any number of researchers to discover, then dump, the reams and reams of [opposition research] on the Donald that most surely exists and which the Democrats will most surely spend a billion dollars exploiting.”
When it comes to Trump’s rise, however, the RNC does have its defenders.
One leading adviser to the party told InsideSources, “I understand the frustration of loyal Republicans that we are ending up with Trump as our nominee, but the venom towards the RNC is misplaced,” said the source. “They are responsive to RNC members, and Trump is now winning there, so it’s hard to say what Reince could have done differently within the constraints of party rules.”
“The Republican Party faces a lot of challenges. Reince ain’t one of them,” said a strategist outside the party’s infrastructure. “He has worked hard without ego. He understands the role of the RNC. After bringing the party out of debt, he’s now doing what he can to keep the team united. I don’t envy the job he has.”
But for many tied closely to the losing campaigns this cycle, the feeling that the RNC should have done more to take control of the process is sure to be long-lived.
A senior adviser to one of this year’s suspended GOP campaigns told InsideSources the RNC “appeared oftentimes confused or feckless in the face of the one-man bluster factory” that is Trump, but “they along with the rest of the candidates were dealt a bad hand to play in 2016.”
The adviser saw a particular failure in the messaging that has been a hallmark of the party in the tea-party era. “After six years of ginning up the angry base of the party and successfully sending the pitchforks after Democrats in Congress, the mob turned the pitchforks back on them,” the adviser said. “See, that’s the thing about mobs. You never know whose porch they end up on at 3 a.m.”
Graham Vyse contributed to this report.