Republican National Committee officials say they are working closely with the White House on strategy and messaging. But some GOP operatives contend coordination is lacking and that could weaken the party.
President Donald Trump and his predecessor, Barack Obama, differ immeasurably but share at least one characteristic: a commanding persona. Such a president can often make the party apparatus something of an afterthought. The Democratic party under Obama felt that challenge, and so will the GOP under Trump.
Democratic strategists faulted Obama for constructing his own political operation, now called Organizing for Action, at the expense of the Democratic National Committee. Hillary Clinton’s campaign bosses were reportedly frustrated by what they deemed an ineffective party organization during the 2016 campaign cycle.
The DNC was in such dismal shape when Obama left office, his chief spokesman, Josh Earnest, was unable to point to the one person who would become the party’s true leader after the 44th president relinquished power on Jan. 20.
Now in control of the House, Senate and White House, Republicans are faced with avoiding the same kind of party framework atrophy.
Several Republican strategists with ties to the party committee contend things are not working out so well. They are concerned the RNC and White House are not considering the lessons of the Obama-era DNC seriously enough.
“The RNC doesn’t really have the president’s back,” one GOP operative said, speaking anonymously to be candid. “There are a lot of folks [at the RNC] who view Trump as a ticking time bomb — and they’d much rather prefer that it explodes in someone else’s hands.”
Much of the criticism directed at the 44th president concerned the national party becoming almost exclusively about Obama, which undercut building a party that was strong up and down the ballot.
“The question is: Is the president even interested in party building?” the GOP operative said. “I don’t think so. … All indications are, and from the people I’ve talked to, he views the RNC and the party as subservient to him. He did get elected almost by himself.”
But there are signs Trump is engaging.
For instance, Trump tried to give a boost to Kansas state Treasurer Ron Estes, the GOP nominee in a 4th District race there. The president recorded a robocall for Estes, who, based on the late involvement of national Republicans, found himself in a closer-than-expected election to fill the seat vacated by Trump’s CIA Director Mike Pompeo.
Trump also tried to help via his preferred method of communication: Twitter.
Such moves by Trump and his White House are big reasons why Whit Ayres, a veteran Republican pollster, described coordination this way: “So far, so good.”
There have been many reports about infighting among senior White House aides, but little has been written about the Trump-era RNC.
“Generally speaking, when things are going smoothly,” Ayres said, “you don’t hear much grumbling from either side.”
Jerri Ann Henry, another GOP operative, said she sees a RNC that is “taking orders” from Trump’s White House.
“One big thing that I see as a huge issue is even if people [at the RNC] are willingly going along with the president or enthusiastically going along, the RNC isn’t leading,” she said.
Henry also sees a party committee’s communication efforts that are too “reactionary,” adding: “Creating a narrative and a winning message takes more than awareness of what’s being said.”
But, overall, she expects the RNC will be one that “behaves well under Trump — and, by that, I mean it will mostly fall in line behind him.”
Ryan Mahoney, RNC communications director, described coordination with the White House as a “very good working relationship.”
“We coordinate with them as much as possible,” he said, describing the collaboration as covering GOP messaging, congressional races, and advocacy for Trump’s policy agenda.
The RNC blasts out “everything from statements to research products to talking points and more” to reporters, party operatives, RNC members and others each day, Mahoney said. “We send things to any Republican across the country that would want it,” he said.
Information sharing that could help the party is happening everywere, he said, including down to the grassroots level, where the DNC appeared weakest last November.
There is a daily call with White House officials to trade notes and synchronize the two sides’ efforts. Then there are additional calls and emails through the day on specific issues, such as the recent joint effort to get Justice Neil Gorsuch confirmed to the Supreme Court or the Republican Party’s so-far turbulent quest to “repeal and replace” Obama’s 2010 health care law.
“We expect those things to continue as the White House and Congress continue to roll out legislation to make sure everyone is singing from the same song sheets,” Mahoney said during a recent interview.
RNC officials are mindful of the Obama-DNC missteps, but are not using any lessons gleaned from its rival organization’s atrophy.
“We had very close contact with the Trump campaign and a lot of former RNC folks went over there,” Mahoney said, mentioning White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus and Press Secretary Sean Spicer, who previously were the party committee’s chairman and communications director.
“That close coordination just never really stopped,” he said.
A White House spokeswoman did not respond to a request for comment.