Re-elected Republican National Committee Chair Ronna McDaniel holds a gavel while speaking at the committee's winter meeting in Dana Point, Calif., Friday, Jan. 27, 2023. Credit: Jae C. Hong / AP

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On the surface, Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel and Maine Republican Party Chairwoman Demi Kouzounas are strikingly similar. Both rose to lead their respective party organizations in the aftermath of the 2016 election, with McDaniel being appointed by Donald Trump to lead the national party in December of that year, whereas Kouzounas was elected shortly thereafter. Both have served for three terms. Both presided over brutal campaigns in three successive elections.

And both also announced that they were running for their job again this year, hoping to muscle through the criticism to win a fourth term.

That, however, is where the comparisons end. Last week, McDaniel survived a difficult but ultimately uneventful challenge to her leadership, while Kouzounas failed, losing to former Maine House assistant minority leader Joel Stetkis in a wild and somewhat dramatic contest.

A key question party insiders considered as they decided the fate of both women was the degree to which they deserve blame for electoral failures on their watch. To detractors, three successive disappointing elections was reason enough to toss them overboard.

In McDaniel’s first election in 2018, Republicans lost 41 seats in the U.S. House of Representatives and handed the speaker’s gavel back to Nancy Pelosi. In that same year in Maine, Janet Mills won the Blaine House and the state Senate flipped from Republican control to Democrat. 2020, too, was disappointing for both McDaniel and Kouzounas as President Trump lost his re-election bid, and congressional and legislative majorities slid further.

Then in 2022, a year Republicans were expected to dominate, the party failed to retake the Senate, barely retook the House, and in Maine former governor Paul LePage was walloped by Mills in the gubernatorial race. Not good.

To supporters, though, results were not necessarily indicative of incompetence. Party organizations are not ultimately able to “win” races on their own through clever tactics and campaign support. Candidate quality matters. Campaign quality matters. National environment and issues out of the control of party operatives matter.

Can a party help make a meaningful difference on the margins? Yes it can, but that party can’t overcome the various bad hands it is dealt, and there is no fooling the voters by putting lipstick on a pig. The last three elections have been full of a lot of metaphorical pigs on the Republican side of the aisle.

In 2022 alone the effort to capture the U.S. Senate was doomed by the foolish selection of ridiculous joke candidates, such as Mehmet Oz in Pennsylvania and Herschel Walker in Georgia. Ronna McDaniel and Mitch McConnell didn’t have anything to do with those people being candidates, and in fact they wanted other choices that would’ve been more electorally appealing, so it is hard to really blame them for those failures.

The truth, as usual, is somewhere between these perspectives. Supporters are right, party operatives are important, but they can’t overcome the disaster that Republican candidate selection and campaigns seem to be right now. Can they take a good but marginal candidate and put them in contention? Yes. Can they take a candidate in a dogfight and maybe help push them over the edge? Sure. But can they take a dumpster fire and turn it into a smashing success? No.

And yet that isn’t exactly an excuse for the failure to build competent, winning political machines at the national level, or here in Maine. For almost a generation, Democrats enjoyed the fruits of a fundraising and grassroots-oriented operation, built largely between 2004 and 2012, which has allowed them to recruit quality candidates, train them how to win, support them, raise money for them, and ultimately prevail in close elections.

Republicans have done none of that. Here in Maine, there has been a shocking over-reliance on national funding during big election years, leading to a top-down approach to politics, which has simply not been successful. The staff at Maine GOP headquarters, including long-time Executive Director Jason Savage, are actually quite competent and have done an excellent job executing the job they have been asked to do.

But the vision of a party that builds from the bottom up was not there for the last six years, thus they were never asked to cultivate a small-dollar donor base, nor were they charged with creating an army of grassroots activists.

Which in the end, is why Maine Republicans made the switch. Now the spotlight is on Stetkis, and only time will tell if things will improve under his leadership. He has a great track record and is saying all the right things. But he also has an awful lot of work to do.  

Matthew Gagnon, Opinion columnist

Matthew Gagnon of Yarmouth is the chief executive officer of the Maine Policy Institute, a free market policy think tank based in Portland. A Hampden native, he previously served as a senior strategist...