Now comes stage two of President Donald Trump’s takeover of the Republican Party.
With the Republican National Committee firmly in his control, the White House and Trump’s political allies are now moving to lock down the state Republican parties, installing loyalists in top positions and laying the groundwork for the 2018 midterms and his 2020 reelection campaign in key swing states.
Under the watchful eye of the president and the White House political office, Trump skeptics have been ousted from atop state committees. Lines of contact have been established to gauge the political temperature on the ground and monitor key upcoming races — beginning with the 2017 governor and attorney general races in Virginia.
In addition to the political travel schedule of the president and Vice President Mike Pence — who have since November visited a number of Republican and battleground states that they won, but none that they lost — administration staffers are being dispatched beyond the Beltway: Kellyanne Conway, a Trump counselor in the White House and his campaign manager, is set to speak to state parties in New Hampshire and North Carolina in the coming weeks.
“The one unusual thing that has happened since Election Day is the quantity and quality of outreach we’ve gotten in Colorado from the White House directly, from the political director[’s office] in the White House. Nobody ever recalls anything like this level of attention,” said Steve House, who left his post as the chairman of that state’s GOP earlier this month. “A lot of the conversation is getting ready for 2018 and 2020, and I get the distinct impression that the Trump administration realizes that while we didn’t get it done in Colorado in 2016, it’s important to lay the groundwork now.”
The effort to reshape the party infrastructure is being driven by a loose collection of pro-Trump activists in the states, and overseen by the White House political office run by former Chris Christie aide Bill Stepien. For Trump, a president who frequently talks about his election victory and is famously focused on who endorsed him and who refused to, it’s an opportunity to remake his fractured party.
“I talk with them regularly, we have regular calls and they’re very interested in things that are going on in the state,” said Dallas Woodhouse, the executive director of North Carolina’s state party, explaining that political office officials ask him for updates on the state’s local fights, including the recent attempt to repeal the HB2 transgender bathroom bill. “They want to know what’s going on and how they can be helpful. They take a lot of initiative to call and check in.”
In Colorado, a hub of #NeverTrump activity ahead of last summer’s GOP convention, House declined to run for another term after a tumultuous year marked by claims of bias from pro-Trump activists. He eventually became a vigorous Trump supporter but was replaced this month by Jeff Hays, who carried the support of Trump’s state campaign team. A White House political office staffer traveled to suburban Denver to watch the April 1 vote that elevated Hays to the chairmanship, House said.
Those machinations paled next to the chairmanship battles in Ohio and Michigan, two states that were essential to Trump’s Electoral College victory. As president-elect, Trump wrote a letter endorsing Jane Timken — who had raised raised money for his campaign — for Ohio party chair and called roughly a dozen voting members of the state central committee in an ultimately successful effort to oust Matt Borges, an ally of Trump antagonist Gov. John Kasich.
In MIchigan, Trump deputies Reince Priebus and Steve Bannon circulated a letter of support for Ron Weiser — a top donor and vice-chair of Trump’s campaign — who won the race after Scott Hagerstrom, Trump’s state director, dropped out.
Elsewhere, in other critical swing states, Trump supporters pounced when longtime chairs chose not to run for re-election. In Pennsylvania, where Trump ally Rob Gleason stepped aside after a long tenure, he was replaced by Chester County’s Val DiGiorgio, whose stated goal was to improve GOP performance in the populous southeastern part of the state that the president lost. The new chairman promptly hired a number of former Trump staffers for his senior team.
In New Hampshire — the site of Trump’s first primary win — Jennifer Horn, a frequent target of Trump backers because of her antipathy toward the eventual nominee during the primary, was succeeded by former state Sen. Jeanie Forrester. Forrester had backed Trump in the general election and talked about the need to keep his supporters engaged.
Swing states haven’t been the sole focus of Trump forces. In Tennessee, former congressional aide Scott Golden beat Brent Leatherwood, the former party executive director who had come under fire for defending GOP Gov. Bill Haslam’s criticism of Trump in October and for telling voters to “vote their conscience” rather than explicitly instructing them to vote for Trump.
The turnover isn’t finished — the bulk of state party conventions will take place in the next three months, with still more chair votes looming in states where long-tenured leaders are exiting. Among them are Minnesota, where Trump came surprisingly close in November, and South Carolina, an early-voting presidential state where he rolled through the primary.
While it’s not unusual for an administration to attempt to put its stamp on the party infrastructure outside Washington, the Trump White House appears to be moving more aggressively than their immediate predecessors. Barack Obama’s White House, for example, only had a formal political director on-and-off over the course of his two terms and rarely turned its gaze toward the state Democratic parties.
But neither Obama nor George W. Bush faced the prospect of working with state leaders who had openly resisted them. While some state leaders were on Trump’s side early — like Michael McDonald, the Nevada chair who struck up a friendship with the candidate, leading Trump to host a fundraiser for him in August — many local parties had strained relationships with his teams on the ground during the 2016 cycle, such as in Ohio.
Gaining control over more of those state-level operations would mean that in addition to controlling the RNC — where Trump allies like Ronna Romney McDaniel, the former Michigan chair, and Bob Paduchik, his Ohio chief, are now in charge — Trump and his political team would have a firm grasp on all the levers of Republican power and messaging ahead of the midterms.
"Almost immediately, when President Trump was sworn in, we got immediate outreach from the political office. We’ve been down to the West Wing, but we’re a little bit of an unusual case because we’ve got a governor’s race and the president owns property in Virginia,” said John Whitbeck, the GOP chair in Virginia. “A lot of what they’re doing in 2018 they’re testing in 2017.”
“It’s a very different relationship than Barack Obama with the DNC, hence the incredible fundraising numbers,” he added. “[Former RNC Chairman and now Chief of Staff Reince Priebus] is not going to let the operation atrophy."
In Montana, the site of an upcoming congressional special election to replace Ryan Zinke — now Trump’s Interior secretary — the conversation is even more directly political.
“We’re working with the White House political director because we’ve got a special election here on May 25, and we’d like to have prominent people — the president or vice president — out here to fire up the troops,” said Montana GOP chairman Jeff Essmann. “And help elect someone who will Make America Great Again."