During Donald Trump's presidential transition process in late 2016 and early 2017, the then-president-elect blazed an unusual trail. While incoming U.S. leaders have traditionally focused on governing preparations, Trump instead turned his attention to headlining self-congratulatory rallies and picking fights with "Saturday Night Live."
There was, however, a stray controversy that caught his attention. Two weeks ahead of Inauguration Day 2017, Trump interrupted his schedule of tweeting and watching television to oust Matt Borges, the then-chair of the Ohio Republican Party. For the incoming president, Borges simply wasn't a reliable ally, and as such he needed to be replaced. Jane Timken, the Trump-backed rival, was elevated soon after.
It was the first indication that Trump didn't just expect congressional Republicans to cater to his whims, he also expected state Republican Parties to serve as cogs of his political machine. Team Trump invested time and energy into making sure these state GOP entities were led by his allies.
As Politico reported, the former president may be gone, but the results still linger.
In red states, blue states and swing states, these leaders — nearly all of whom were elected during Trump's presidency or right after — are redefining the traditional role of the state party chair. They are emerging not just as guardians of the former president's political legacy, but as chief enforcers of Trumpism within the GOP.
While public conflicts between state parties and their own elected officials have long been rare, Trumpified state Republican Party chairs can't seem to help themselves. Indeed, many Trump-backed GOP leaders are stepping up to exert power and influence in ways without modern precedent:
In Arizona, state GOP Chair Kelli Ward has feuded openly with Gov. Doug Ducey (R).
In Massachusetts, state GOP Chair Jim Lyons has repeatedly clashed with Gov. Charlie Baker (R).
In Michigan, state GOP Chair Ron Weiser recently joked about the assassination of Republican lawmakers who voted to impeach Trump.
In Oklahoma, state GOP Chair John Bennett endorsed Sen. James Lankford's (R) primary rival because the incumbent senator didn't vote to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election.
In Texas, state GOP Chair Allen West decided to take on Gov. Greg Abbott in a Republican primary.
Politico's report added that several other state party chairs "have been at the center of a raft of resolutions to censure or rebuke GOP lawmakers deemed insufficiently loyal to Trump."
The traditional role of a state party chair is to focus on fundraising, structural concerns, and candidate recruitment. In contemporary Republican politics, these chairs have added responsibilities: promoting and protecting the interests of a failed former president.
Chris Vance, a former chairman of the Washington State Republican Party who has since left the GOP, told The Hill, "State party chairs are elected by the grassroots. They are not accountable to the elected officials, they are accountable to the grassroots, and if they don't do what the grassroots want them to do, they won't be chair for very long. Today's base of the Republican Party is, are you loyal to Trump? This activism of Trumpist state party chairs is driven by the same thing that's driving the entire party."
It's worth marveling at the degree to which the former president holds sway over GOP lawmakers on Capitol Hill, but to fully appreciate Trump's reach, don't look past state Republican Parties, the intensity of their loyalty toward him, and the lasting effects of the Trumpified party far outside the nation's capital.
John Thomas, a Republican strategist who works on House campaigns across the country, told Politico, "Party chairs, that's one of their main jobs to recruit candidates, so oftentimes party chairs will recruit them in their image or ideological worldview."
He added that party chairs can also "decide where to invest in things like voter registration and all that. So, if they have a particular incumbent they don't like that doesn't line up with the Trump world view, they can penalize incumbents and potential challengers as well."