Donald Trump’s takeover of the Republican Party is underway.
His staffers are lining up to run for offices up and down the ballot. Loyalists are looking to dislodge state party leaders who are perceived as insufficiently committed to the president-elect. And a top Trump aide has emerged as a leading contender to become the next chairman of the Republican National Committee.
Less than a month after Election Day, the party that once kept Trump at arm’s length is gradually being commandeered by him, a turnabout that GOP establishment forces could have scarcely imagined just a few months ago.
“Every Republican president since Lincoln remakes the party in their image — and particularly in the case of Trump, who has led a movement, you’ll see a lot of candidates,” said Roger Stone, a longtime Trump friend and informal adviser.
Some Trump allies are looking to take down Republicans who have been less-than-welcoming to the incoming president. Over the weekend, Jane Timken, an Ohio Republican who raised money for the president-elect, wrote a letter to state GOP officials informing that she would be challenging Matt Borges, the highly effective state party chairman who clashed bitterly with Trump’s campaign. Several weeks before the election, Trump’s team announced it had severed ties with Borges.
“Once the nomination was settled, Chairman Borges had the obligation to fully support the nominee and his campaign,” Timken wrote. “He did not, and his actions have divided the party leadership. This was his choice.”
Timken said she recently spoke with Trump “and he agrees that it is time for a leadership change at” the state party.
In Virginia, Corey Stewart, Trump’s former state chairman, is preparing a 2017 bid for the governor that will first pit him against fellow Republican Ed Gillespie, a former RNC chairman who was lukewarm in his support of Trump during the presidential campaign — even refusing to appear onstage with him.
Already, Gillespie’s strained relationship with the GOP’s new landlord is emerging as an issue, with Stewart accusing the former party leader of being insufficiently supportive of the incoming president.
“People know that I’m a true-blue Trump supporter,” said Stewart, adding that he wanted to campaign with Trump. “It’s been like rocket-fuel for my campaign as soon he won. It’s a complete change from what it was before Nov. 8.”
“That yearning for change, that anger at the establishment, it’s still out there,” he said. “I’m grabbing hold of that movement in Virginia. I’m effectively the leader of it.”
So far, it remains a mystery as to how Trump will engage on political matters and whether he will campaign for former aides and volunteers.
Two of his top staffers, digital director Brad Parscale and son-in-law Jared Kushner, have begun the work of establishing a White House political operation, though neither had any political experience prior to the 2016 presidential campaign.
While there is talk that former Trump campaign manager Kellyanne Conway will lead a Trump-aligned outside group, it remains unclear whether it will be solely focused on advancing the president-elect’s political agenda or also the GOP’s interests in party-building and down-ballot races.
During the first year of his tenure, President Barack Obama faced considerable blow-back for meddling in a number of down-ballot races, a move that exposed him to criticism he was heavy handed and too overtly political.
The effort to leverage the president-elect’s political brand doesn’t appear to be coordinated with Trump Tower. Two Trump aides said the transition team had done little to encourage its allies to wage political bids, and that the activity was more organic than orchestrated.
Among the Trump-inspired candidates are Alan Cobb, a longtime campaign staffer who served as Trump’s national director of coalitions and is now in discussions about running for a soon-to-be vacant Kansas congressional seat.
Dane Maxwell, Trump’s former Mississippi director, has launched a bid for mayor of Pascagoula, a city of 22,000 in the southeast corner of the state. Maxwell, who has earned the endorsement of GOP Gov. Phil Bryant, said Trump’s unexpected win provided fuel for his supporters to take his lead.
Maxwell has made his tenure as a Trump staffer a central plank of his candidacy, arguing that he established a multitude of contacts throughout the South that would be useful if he is elected mayor. “I would love to follow Trump’s momentum,” Maxwell said.
Scott Hagerstrom, who directed Trump’s successful Michigan campaign, is running to unseat the state’s sitting GOP chairwoman, Ronna Romney McDaniel, a niece of former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. Hagerstrom has promised to “drain the swamp” and combat “special interests” — themes frequently used by Trump.
Stuart Jolly, Trump’s former national field director, said it was wise to tap into the president-elect’s populist message, which invigorated disaffected working-class voters and attracted scores of new people to the Republican Party.
“They’re in touch with what’s going on out there and I think people are going to want their leadership,” he said. “Now everyone’s seeing that they had their fingers on the pulse.”
The pro-Trump push has extended all the way up the chain to the race for the RNC chairmanship. Dave Urban, Trump’s top staffer in Pennsylvania, has talked with Trump about leading the national committee and is seen as a serious contender for the post. Trump is expected to settle on his pick for the job sometime over the next month.
A Republican Party stamped with Trump’s imprimatur isn’t without risk. If Trump stumbles out of the gate, the GOP as a whole will find it difficult to get distance from him in the 2018 midterm elections. And it’s possible that mainstream Republican voters, who rebuked Trump during the primaries, will line up against those running under his banner, leading to bloody and resource-draining primaries. “It’s a double-edged sword,” said Stewart. “There are a lot of people who are suspicious of Trump supporters.”
The upshot is worth the risk, says Maxwell.
“Before Trump won, a lot of people said, ‘This is a nasty business.’ But he’s inspired a lot of people, including me,” he added. “We’re stepping out there, we’re putting ourselves out there.”