Zeldin: I won't run for RNC chair unless GOP abandons McDaniel

AP Photo/Eduardo Munoz Alvarez

Quite the surprise from the man some in the GOP credit for delivering a narrow House majority in a midterm many consider botched by the party otherwise. Lee Zeldin ran a nearly perfect campaign in his quixotic challenge to incumbent governor Kathy Hochul in New York. He lost by six points in a state where Democrats dominate, but Zeldin — and a friendly redistricting map — delivered five House seats to the nine-seat Republican majority.


Zeldin had announced his intent to challenge Ronna McDaniel for the helm of the RNC, and seemed to be building momentum. Until this morning, that is, when Zeldin withdrew — conditionally. Zeldin will consider running, it seems, if the RNC dumps McDaniel first:

Rep. Lee Zeldin (D-N.Y.) announced on Wednesday that he will not challenge Ronna McDaniel for the Republican National Committee’s (RNC) top spot but urged the three-time chairwoman to step aside.

“Change is desperately needed, and there are many leaders, myself included, ready and willing to step up to ensure our party retools and transforms as critical elections fast approach,” Zeldin said in a statement.

“However, the issue is Chairwoman McDaniel’s re-election appears to already be pre-baked, as if the disappointing results of every election during her tenure, including yesterday in Georgia, do not and should not even matter,” he added.

This seems like an odd choice for someone who didn’t mind tilting at windmills all year long. Running against a Democrat incumbent in New York has to at least be a little more daunting than attempting to convince fellow Republicans of the merits of the case Zeldin laid out today. Just because McDaniel has won some commitments up front doesn’t mean they can’t be convinced to change their minds, and at least the contest would force everyone to make their best arguments for where the GOP goes from here.


After all, if the RNC members are as ready for change as Zeldin says, they would welcome such a debate over the future of the party. Why not force McDaniel to have one?

It’s not that Zeldin’s wrong on the broad strokes. The RNC needs to improve its fundraising — a perpetual task for both parties — and the GOP needs to better define what it is rather than just identify as what it isn’t. It’s never enough to just be the alternative to the status quo, not if you want to win elections rather than commentate from the sidelines.

“The way to earn votes from Democrat and independent voters is not by acting like Democrats,” Zeldin writes, “but by being proud Republicans articulating why we stand for the positions we are most passionate about.” That’s true, but it’s only half of the equation. To actually win those Democrats and independents, Republicans have to go one step further and demonstrate why those positions will benefit those voters personally and explicitly in their communities. That’s what Republicans are lousy at doing — contextualizing their broad values into community-specific policies.

The question, though, is whether that’s a problem at the RNC or with the candidates that keep emerging from the primaries. The RNC didn’t pick Herschel Walker, Mehmet Oz, Don Bolduc, Kari Lake, et al. The RNC’s involvement with these candidates started after Republican voters nominated them in the primaries; in some cases, state parties had recruited their primary opponents. It’s clear that the RNC didn’t direct their messaging or their selection, so it’s tough to blame McDaniel for their poor performance.


As far as three straight losses — the argument Zeldin makes — there’s some nuances to that as well. First off, the GOP won control of the House in this cycle, even if it turned out to be a narrow win. They actually gained ground in 2020 too, even while losing the presidency — and the latter can hardly be blamed on the RNC. McDaniel actually merged the RNC and the Trump campaign to make sure that the GOP’s ground game remained robust for all its candidates, and that paid off with the surprising pickup in House seats, making Joe Biden the first candidate to win a first term as president while his party lost House seats in modern American election history.

No one knows these distinctions better than the state party committees. Not coincidentally, they’re also the people who vote in the RNC chair election. They may be inclined to see the RNC chair position more organizationally than aspirationally, and that may be why Zeldin’s not getting traction while McDaniel wants to keep the job.

That doesn’t mean McDaniel should stick around. It just explains why RNC electors may stick with her. My friend Erick-Woods Erickson makes an argument today about why she should be given the heave-ho:

RNC, are you really going to keep Ronna McDaniel? She’s undoubtedly going to take credit for a Herculean lift in Georgia, but she and the RNC and the Georgia GOP did not do too much.

Kemp did way more, and McConnell spent way more.

Under David Shafer, the Georgia Republican Chairman, Georgia went down in 2020 and now the Senate in 2022. He has alienated himself from the entirety of the statewide GOP leadership by backing primary candidates to most of them.

It is so bad now that the Georgia Republican leaders have set up a leadership PAC to steer money from the Georgia GOP just to keep that money out of David Shafer’s hands.


Those issues should matter to RNC electors as well. More broadly, Republicans do need a change in direction, especially in candidate recruitment. To get there, the party has to make its agenda and values clear so that novelty candidates don’t have enough room to displace better candidates. If the state party electors remain too organizationally focused, they will miss the forest for the trees.

If McDaniel’s not the change that’s needed, then the GOP had better start defining what changes are — because what they’ve been doing clearly has not been successful enough, especially in a target-rich environment such as the 2022 midterms.

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