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Former RNC co-chairman: The party’s job is to win

Drew McKissick reflects on the role of the Republican National Committee

Drew McKissick at the Silver Elephant Gala in Columbia, S.C., Aug. 5, 2023 Associated Press/Photo by Meg Kinnard

Former RNC co-chairman: The party’s job is to win

Drew McKissick, 55, has been the South Carolina GOP chairman for six years, but his roots go deeper to when he volunteered for the state party as a college Republican in 1988. Late last year he successfully climbed the national ladder to be co-chairman of the Republican National Committee. His online bio says he “likes Elvis and beating Democrats.” But his tenure with the national party will be short. On Monday, two days after former President Donald Trump won the South Carolina GOP primary, McKissick announced he would resign from his position in less than two weeks.

RNC Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel is also leaving after months of calls from pro-Trump factions of the party demanding her to resign. Many conservatives blame McDaniel, and by extension McKissick, for widespread Republican losses in the 2022 midterms, as well as low fundraising. But Trump has also criticized them for failing to affirm his claims that the 2020 election was stolen.

I sat down with McKissick in South Carolina to discuss the direction of the national party. He has not responded to further requests for comment about his resignation. Our conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

What is the role of the Republican National Committee? The party’s role is to do the fundamentals: messaging, organization, and fundraising. Our job as campaign committees, which is what the RNC is, is to win. We sometimes are prone to confuse the party with the last Republican elected official you saw on television. For example, whatever Mitch McConnell does, well, that’s McConnell, that’s not the party. The party is over here to win elections. Once those guys get in there, they deal with the policy.

How have you seen the GOP change in the past 10 years? I can speak most directly to what I've seen here in South Carolina. And within the last 10 years, we’ve had amazing growth. I’ve been chairman for three election cycles now, and in each cycle, we’ve had the best results for Republicans in over 150 years here in the state. We’re one seat away from a supermajority in the state Senate, and we’ve got increasing majorities from countywide down to city council across the state.

What’s been driving that growth? We’ve seen a lot more people in this state, which is right of center, who consider themselves conservatives. They’ve aligned values with the party as more conservative, and that’s led to more growth.

Hasn’t South Carolina been a secure conservative state for decades? If you were looking at South Carolina from the outside, you’ve probably thought it’s a red state. We’ve voted for every Republican president since Eisenhower, except for the mistake with the guy from Georgia back in ’76, [Jimmy Carter]. But we have had ticket splitters. At the local level, we have a lot of conservative Democrats and independents in rural areas who for years had been voting Republican for president but Democrat for U.S. Senate and governor. We had never beaten Democrats on straight-ticket voting in this state until 2016 when the bottom dropped out of the Democrat Party on down-ticket support, and we have beaten them ever since.

Was Trump the catalyst in 2016? When Trump first ran, he was against candidates with real money, backing, reputation, and segments of party support around the country. Over the course of 20 years, what I would refer to as the “Beltway Republican” crowd moved away from the base of the party, particularly on issues of immigration and trade. Then Donald Trump came along and talked about those issues. And it was like a rubber band just snapped back. All of a sudden, everybody figured, ‘Oh, the base does not move with us on these issues.’ He tapped into that, and he ran roughshod over all those other candidates. As a result, more people have come into the party, and our coalition has grown.

But Nikki Haley, your former governor, says she can be the candidate to turn the GOP into “the party of addition.” What do you think? Anybody saying the party is subtracting is not paying attention to math, or they’re not very good at it.

What is your take on Haley’s presidential campaign so far? Her campaign has largely been one of criticizing former President Trump. Her lane is to be the anti-Trump candidate, which is a very small segment in this party if you’re looking to grow a successful campaign. On the president’s side, the interesting thing to me to watch is that this does not have the normal trappings of a campaign. It’s almost as if this campaign has essentially been run inside or outside of the courtroom. Trump’s opponents are not the people who ran against him in a primary. It’s the government and the judiciary who are coming after him. So instead of spending a lot of money running ads on TV, he’s coming out of the courtroom and doing a press conference. It starves the campaigns for oxygen. When life gives you lemons, make lemonade, and he’s made lemonade out of it very successfully.

You don’t think Trump is too controversial a candidate this year? He’s a known quantity. He has a four-year track record that people can look back at right now. For all the stupidity that people are floating around about how he’s going to plunge us into war or kill democracy, we had him for four years. We didn’t really develop any tension. We had a good economy, less inflation, less immigration. It’s better than what we’ve got right now.

Do you think the RNC should contribute to Trump’s legal bills? In every presidential cycle when you have a presumptive nominee, you have a merger between the national committee and the nominee’s campaign. This is not an exception or abnormality. And the degree of the merger just depends on whatever makes sense. A joint finance committee will be put together between the RNC, the campaign, and state parties. Whether it’s legal bills, campaign advertisements, mail, or a grassroots program, all these different things come into play when you’re putting together a priority list to figure out who’s best situated to pay for things. It comes down to a matter of what’s the best way to pay for all the things that we know we need to pay for in order to win. And that’s our job, at the end of the day.

But Trump isn’t the official nominee yet. My expectation is things will be over after South Carolina. Voters have spoken, and we’ve seen the polls be emphatic for Trump. No matter what other candidates might be saying, I think that’s what needs to happen. 

Since the overturning of Roe v. Wade, conservatives have had very few pro-life wins at the polls. Is this becoming a losing issue for Republicans? No. I think the road to success for pro-lifers around the country on this issue is on a state-by-state basis, but if candidates don't do a good job at messaging or defend themselves when they get attacked, they’re going to lose. For instance, look at the Kentucky governor’s race last year. [Former state Attorney General] Daniel Cameron: great guy, pro-life, and he got beat to heck by a Democrat incumbent on an abortion issue and did not respond. He let the Democrat define him as a wide-eyed radical. Republicans have every opportunity to define the Democrats as the true radicals here. These are people who think abortion ought to be legal up until the moment of birth, and they think partial birth abortions ought to be legal. Describe the process, describe what these people are actually for. When you do, they will lose.

Editor’s note: WORLD has updated this report from its initial posting to correct the name of Daniel Cameron.

Carolina Lumetta

Carolina is a WORLD reporter and a graduate of the World Journalism Institute and Wheaton College. She resides in Washington, D.C.


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