From the earliest days of his presidency Donald Trump and his political team worked to re-engineer the infrastructure of the Republican Party, installing allies in top leadership posts in key states.
The effect has been dramatic — and continues to reverberate nearly six months after he left office.
In Oklahoma, the newly installed party chair is endorsing a primary challenge to GOP Sen. James Lankford, the home state incumbent who crossed Trump by voting to uphold results of the November election. In Michigan, the state party chair joked about assassinating two Republican House members who voted to impeach Trump. Arizona’s state chair accused Republican Gov. Doug Ducey of nothing less than killing people by restricting the use of hydroxychloroquine, a Trump obsession, in response to the coronavirus pandemic.
There and elsewhere, state party chairs have been at the center of a raft of resolutions to censure or rebuke GOP lawmakers deemed insufficiently loyal to Trump.
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.
It figures to be a boon for him if he runs for another term in 2024, but also carries the risk of tying the party’s fortunes too closely to an ex-president whose political brand is toxic to many voters.
“It’s purity tests, 100 percent,” said Landon Brown, a Republican state lawmaker from Wyoming whose state party chair, Frank Eathorne, earned Trump’s public endorsement for reelection this year after the state party censured Rep. Liz Cheney for her vote to impeach Trump. “When it comes to the party, what I have started seeing, especially in the past four to five years … it’s much more a hard-line, defined, ‘If you don’t vote this way, you’re not a Republican.’”
Open warring by state party chairs against elected officials was once rare, and disagreements were typically kept discreet in the interest of party unity. Top party leaders were tasked with party-building efforts and fundraising, and were accustomed to showing deference to home state senators and governors, or working assiduously to advance their political interests.
But Trump’s penchant for intra-party conflict and demands for absolute loyalty changed the equation. As president-elect, he personally intervened in an effort to oust an Ohio state chair who had been critical of him. In endorsing Eathorne’s reelection in April, Trump cited Eathorne’s role in censuring Cheney. In his March endorsement of David Shafer, the Georgia party chair, Trump said, “No one in Georgia fought harder for me than David!”
Shafer had gone so far as to join a lawsuit challenging the November election results, litigating against his own state’s Republican chief election officer. The state party formally rebuked Brad Raffensperger, Georgia’s Republican secretary of state, at its convention last month.
Between Trump’s still-domineering hand on the party and a GOP base that remains intensely loyal to the former president, the imperative for state party chairs is to intertwine his interests with that of the party — fearful that failing to do so may alienate supporters. This is despite Trump’s failure to win a second term and the loss of Republican majorities in Congress during his watch.
“The party’s been taken over by people who have been elected since he became the president who in effect said, ‘Get on the team or shut up,’” said Allen Weh, a former chair of the New Mexico Republican Party and a Trump ally.
That dynamic has served to elevate the importance of party chairs as political actors — in some cases rivaling those who are actually on the ballot. The chairs have significant latitude in their states — from candidate recruitment, to deciding which candidates to invite to plum speaking engagements, to how to allocate money for voter registration and other programs. Several state Republican parties canceled their presidential nominating contests entirely in 2020, insulating Trump from long-shot challengers, including in South Carolina. There, the state’s former two-term governor, Mark Sanford, could not even get a hearing.
Bill Weld, a former two-term Massachusetts governor who ran for president in 2020, also hit a wall in his home state. The state party changed the way it awarded delegates to presidential candidates to help ensure that Trump in 2020 would not lose even a single delegate to the state’s former governor, who won reelection in a landslide in the 1990s.
Jim Lyons, the state party’s pro-Trump chair, has clashed bitterly with moderate GOP Gov. Charlie Baker, who’s made clear he’s no fan of Trump. Baker — one of the nation’s most popular governors — has not announced his intentions for 2022 but a Lyons ally and former Trump campaign co-chair in Massachusetts, Geoff Diehl, has already announced his intention to run for governor.
John Thomas, a Republican strategist who works on House campaigns across the country, said the pro-Trump disposition of the vast majority of state party chairs across the country will likely have a “direct impact” on the party’s candidate recruitment and resource allocation ahead of the midterm elections.
“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,” Thomas said, “So I think it’s safe to say, like in Oklahoma, they’re not going to be recruiting candidates that look like [Utah Sen.] Mitt Romney.”
In addition, he said, “Party chairs can 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.”
Ultimately, the biggest beneficiary of the party’s shifting composition may be Trump himself, if he runs for another term in 2024. The chair of the Republican National Committee, Ronna McDaniel, pledged neutrality when she was reelected to her post following Trump’s defeat. But it’s a different story outside Washington.
“It’s a huge advantage to have a network of support of state party chairs,” said Matt Moore, former chair of the South Carolina Republican Party. “State party chairs have huge megaphones. They choose annual dinner speakers, who gets highlighted in such small things as weekly newsletters. They have a lot of power.”
Drew McKissick, the current South Carolina GOP chair, who was endorsed for re-election this year by Trump not once or twice, but three times, said that Trump “is certainly in a position, because of his experience and the new people and manpower that he brought into the party, to have an incredible number of people support him.”
McKissick said, “He understands the importance of the actual party structure.”
The pro-Trump constellation of GOP state party chairs largely mirrors the sentiment of a Republican electorate that remains overwhelmingly loyal to Trump. And fervent support for the president benefited parties across the country, with a surge in participation at the local level. Georgia Republicans saw record crowds at local organizing meetings earlier this year, with many of the newcomers excited about Trump and furious at the results of the election. The number of activists and volunteers signed up with local parties in South Carolina has roughly doubled since McKissick was first elected in 2017, he said, numbering about 10,000 today.
Though GOP registration in Massachusetts is dwindling, Lyons said Trump has galvanized Republicans at the grassroots level.
At the local level, scores of activists who run local GOP operations have held district or county posts since long before Trump was elected. That’s led some chairs to say the idea that the party has changed dramatically under Trump is overblown. Jennifer Carnahan, the chair of the Minnesota Republican Party, said the party at its core remains largely unchanged since before Trump was elected. Though Trump did “bring new people” into the party, she said, “A lot of these people have been around for decades, right? … I would say the core heart of the Minnesota GOP activist base, it’s largely these real committed individuals that just have a love for our party, our values.”
But public criticism of Trump is almost unheard of at any level within the ranks of state party leadership — and largely isn’t tolerated within a party operation Trump has spent more than four years molding. The attention the chair of the Oklahoma GOP, John Bennett, is now getting for supporting a primary challenge to U.S. Sen. James Lankford is only the most recent example.
In Alaska over the weekend, state party officials endorsed a primary challenge to Sen. Lisa Murkowski, who has been critical of Trump. Before that, it was Kelli Ward, the bombastic state party chair, undermining Ducey in Arizona. Eathorne, the Wyoming party chair, was in Washington the day of the Jan. 6 riot at the Capitol, though he said he participated only in peaceful protests.
Brown, the Wyoming state lawmaker, objected to the state party’s censure of Cheney, and he called for Eathorne to resign after the state party chair floated the idea of secession earlier this year.
“I will not attend state party meetings while he is still in office,” Brown said. “It’s an echo chamber in our state party.”