Politics & Government

‘Reagan was my all-time favorite…until now’— scenes from Trump’s party takeover

President Donald Trump, left, listens as Republican National Committee chairwoman Ronna Romney McDaniel, right, speaks at a fundraiser at Cipriani in New York, Saturday, Dec. 2, 2017. The RNC is firmly in his corner.
President Donald Trump, left, listens as Republican National Committee chairwoman Ronna Romney McDaniel, right, speaks at a fundraiser at Cipriani in New York, Saturday, Dec. 2, 2017. The RNC is firmly in his corner. AP

The day before the Republican National Committee’s May meeting in California, President Donald Trump fired FBI Director James Comey.

The week before the RNC’s August meeting in Nashville, Trump insisted that “both sides” were to blame for white supremacists’ violent protests in Charlottesville.

But the night before the RNC’s meeting here in Washington this week, Trump delivered a measured State of the Union address on the heels of signing a tax reform law.

His allies at the party committee were elated, reflecting Trump’s rock-solid popularity with a base that’s looking for every reason to cheer him — and every reason to discount the criticism that comes pouring in from the rest of the political universe.

“Reagan was my all-time favorite in my lifetime,” said Iowa Republican National Committeeman Steve Scheffler of the iconic conservative president. “At least until now.”

The RNC, and the vast majority of the GOP base, stood by Trump through the enormously controversial Comey firing and his equivocating responses on racist activity in Charlottesville, though the RNC passed its own resolution condemning white supremacy. But signs of a strong economy and the passage of a top Republican legislative achievement have made the party more enthusiastically dedicated to this unpopular president than ever.

It was a dynamic on clear display here at a hotel known to Washingtonians as the Hinckley Hilton, the hotel where John Hinckley Jr., tried to assassinate Reagan. Some attendees wore glittering Trump pins on their lapels. They talked in the hallways about the best messages to use against Democrats (“‘They hate Trump more than they love our country’—that’s what we need to say over and over again,” one committeewoman said to several others.). And their gift bags were stocked with boxes of presidential M&Ms and White House-themed Jelly Belly containers.

“I honestly think the RNC, the individuals, the 160-plus, I honestly think the strength of the support for the president may have increased,” said Iowa GOP Chairman Jeff Kaufmann, referring to the 168 members of the RNC. “Part of that is circling the wagons when we believe one of our own — we’re talking about a political party here — one of our own is under attack, isn’t being given a fair shake. I honestly sense the strengthening of the support for the president.”

The RNC essentially functions as a political arm of the White House, but the routine assemblies of its members also offer a snapshot of the attitudes of the GOP grassroots, as each elected member relies on the support of the most committed activists in their respective states.

“It absolutely is a reflection of the base, and by the base, I mean really hardcore base primary voters,” said Doug Heye, a former communications director at the RNC. “If you’re going to the North Carolina state party convention to vote for who your committee members are or a state party chair, you’re committed. And it means you’re more than likely a supporter of the president.”

That much was clear at the winter session this week, which began the same day that Monmouth University released a poll showing that Trump’s overall approval numbers have ticked up. Among Republicans, a whopping 87 percent approve of the job he is doing, and in the hallways of the Hilton, often-rapturous enthusiasm for Trump was palpable as attendees awaited addresses from Vice President Mike Pence and then from Trump himself.

Trump’s State of the Union speech was “superb,” Scheffler said. “I mean, it’s the best I’ve ever heard, ever. I’ve listened to State of the Union messages going back maybe 40 years and it is the best of the best.”

“We’re all very proud of the job he did on the State of the Union Tuesday night,” added Arkansas Republican National Committeewoman Jonelle Fulmer, her bedazzled Trump-Pence pin sparkling in the hotel hallway light. “I’ve not heard a single dissenting voice. Everyone’s very proud and supporting him.”

The committee is also weighing party resolutions with titles such as “Resolution in Support of President Trump’s National Security Strategy” and, in all caps, “RESOLUTION SUPPORTING PRESIDENT TRUMP’S RIGHT TO RESTORE SOUND POLICIES ON TRANSGENDER PERSONNEL IN THE MILITARY,” according to a copy circulated by the RNC’s member services team that was reviewed by McClatchy. The latter pushes back on court rulings that blocked Trump’s proposed ban on transgender troops, and is a reminder of how the thrice-married New Yorker has endeared himself to social conservatives in the party.

Behind the scenes, not everyone is enamored with every word Trump says, even at the RNC. Some were deeply bothered by his reported rhetoric regarding immigrants from “shithole” countries, and others were troubled by the committee’s decision to support Roy Moore — the Alabama GOP Senate candidate accused of child molestation — following Trump’s lead on the issue. But overall, even those with quiet qualms are generally on board with Trump’s agenda, a stark contrast from the infighting in 2016 over how far to go in backing up the then-GOP nominee.

“There are a lot of concerns that continue to exist, but the RNC is a political body,” said someone who served on the RNC during the 2016 cycle and remains in contact with current members. “It’s their job to win elections, and I would say they’re definitely shifting into that mind frame right now.

“We’re into an election year,” the source continued. “People at the RNC are just getting into fighting mode. It’s becoming less about whether or not they’re comfortable defending Donald Trump, and more about putting 100 percent of their focus on defeating Democrats.”

Yet some activists in attendance were well aware that the party can’t rely on the Trump-loving base alone as they head into a midterm elections season that is expected to be challenging for Republicans.

Progressives are energized, the president’s party historically faces headwinds in the midterms, and Trump’s popularity is underwater, with more moderate suburbanites repeatedly rejecting his hard-edged style in special elections across the country over the last year. Those obstacles were top of mind for some attendees, especially those who represent more urban and suburban areas.

“Just about everyone who voted for him last time would continue to vote for him,” said Val DiGiorgio, the chairman of the Pennsylvania Republican Party, who comes from the suburban Philadelphia area. “We’re trying to find ways to break into the suburban areas and with women voters, so that’s our challenge, but the base is still very much with him.”

For others, the answer to the question of how to confront a tough midterms cycle came right back to Trump.

“You never want to underestimate the president,” said Vermont Republican National Committeeman Jay Shepard. “I don’t think you ever want to bet against him. People have done that far too often. The American people are behind him.”

On Wednesday evening, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich stood at the front of a ballroom that was bathed in soft blue uplighting. As RNC members sipped wine and nibbled puff pastry and canapes, he dismissed the idea that a wave is coming to overturn Trump’s Washington, despite the problems that often face the White House's party in the midterms.

“My first thought is to say, ‘How do you think President Clinton is doing?’” he said. “The truth is, we’re led by somebody who breaks records. We ought to join him this fall.”

But as he signed off, the president he quoted was not Trump — but Reagan.

“Next year if we have won control of the House once again, we’ve picked up six or eight Senate seats, as Ronald Reagan used to say, ‘you ain’t seen nothing yet,’” Gingrich said.

The crowd cheered.

Katie Glueck: 202-383-6078, @katieglueck