The GOP had just lost what should have been a winnable election. A slew of Senate candidates whom voters dubbed extreme got demolished. And the Republican National Committee promised to find answers and a path forward.
That was 2012. In the latest case of history rhyming, RNC Chair Ronna McDaniel announced this week that her party will launch a “review” of the GOP’s failures in the 2022 midterms. But based on what we’ve seen before, it won’t matter what the after-action report finds. When faced with a choice between self-reflection or catering to their core supporters’ worst instincts, Republicans have invariably chosen the latter.
At bare minimum, it will be interesting to see what reforms — if any — this latest bout of soul-searching produces. Some of the most obvious answers are those that are anathema to Republicans, with their professed love of decentralized control. Any increased role for the RNC to help vet candidates and protect more moderate incumbents from attacks on the right in primaries is a non-starter for most of the base’s hard-core conservatives. And state parties are increasingly under the sway of the far right after decades of serving as bastions of the establishment.
It will be interesting to see what reforms — if any — this latest bout of soul-searching produces
In December 2012, then-RNC chair Reince Priebus said in a statement at the launch of the autopsy: “The Growth and Opportunity Project will recommend a plan to further ensure Republicans are victorious in 2013, 2014, 2016 and beyond.” While the House had remained in Republican control, Democrats had held the Senate, and President Barack Obama had cruised to re-election against Mitt Romney. Priebus promised that the project’s findings “will be critical as we move forward as a Party and take our message to every American.”
The five co-chairs released a 97-page report three months later that laid out their recommendations for improvement in seven key areas. The main takeaway was that most Americans saw Republicans as out of touch and that Democrats were running laps around the GOP in terms of organizing and mobilizing voters.
The starkest terms were saved for the section on “Demographic Partners,” which spelled out the need for Republicans to make inroads in minority communities, especially among Black and Hispanic voters. It also recommended that the GOP get on board with comprehensive immigration reform, arguing that it is “consistent with Republican economic policies that promote job growth and opportunity for all.”
To be fair, some autopsy recommendations were put into place, especially those that Priebus could facilitate in his role as RNC chair. “The party has spent millions, for instance, on building a data operation,” NBC News reported in 2014. “A Republican Party equipped with rich voter data files could replicate the kind of turnout machine the Obama campaign leveraged so effectively in 2012.” Republicans did manage to capture the Senate that year, further stymieing Obama’s final two years in office.
But then came Donald Trump. His rise in 2015 helped obliterate the idea that the GOP should court anybody beyond the very white, very conservative base that Trump drew out in droves. Even Priebus, who championed the autopsy that said the Republican Party needed to be more appealing, resigned from the RNC to become Trump’s first chief of staff.
The problems the GOP faces today go beyond figuring out how to sell the Republican Party
But while Trump’s surprise victory in 2016 prompted Republicans up and down the ballot to cater to his whims and priorities, in the last several cycles, Trumpism hasn’t been the electoral winner they hoped it would be. Democrats reclaimed control of Congress in 2018, held it and defeated Trump in 2020, and kept Republican gains to a minimum in the House this year.
One of the major issues with the 2012 report was that it was a political document, not a policy one (aside from its immigration recommendation). Its focus was on how to better persuade voters to support Republican candidates, advocating tweaks to messaging and boosting fundraising efforts. In those discrete areas, the party was successful. But the problems the GOP faces today go beyond figuring out how to sell the Republican Party. Nobody knows what on Earth today’s Republican Party stands for except Trump. You need to have a product before you can try to sell it.
McDaniel is right, though, to think that this review is necessary ahead of 2024. But without a strong power base and buy-in from members, it seems unlikely she’ll have much room to implement any of the suggestions the group produces. If, that is, she manages to hold on to her role for that long. She’s already the longest-serving RNC chair in over a century, and she has challengers nipping at her heels. And with Trump and the fight for the GOP presidential nomination sure to take up much of the party’s attention over the next two years, the odds that the Republican Party of 2024 looks or sounds substantially different from the Republican Party of 2022 are slim to none.