In the waning days of 2012, after Mitt Romney lost in his bid to defeat Barack Obama for a second term, Donald Trump criticized the Republican nominee.

He didn’t criticize Romney for supporting military intervention abroad or free trade – legitimate areas of policy disagreement that remain between the two men today. Instead, he criticized him for being too tough on immigration. He not only criticized Romney for being too tough, he criticized him for being mean-spirited about immigration policy and costing Republicans votes.

Yes, that was the same Donald Trump who’s president right now. The year after Romney lost, the Republican National Committee commissioned a report to look at what went wrong in that race. Their report, titled the “Growth and Opportunity Project,” recommended reaching out to minorities as well as young people to expand the party’s base and make it more inclusive. The report also advised that the party look to successful governors as models for how to expand the party nationwide. It was a good series of recommendations that, had they been implemented, could have transformed the GOP.

Instead, Donald Trump ran and completely tossed out that playbook. Not only did he ignore the report’s recommendations to make the party more inclusive and welcoming, he ignored his own advice from four years before. Moreover, in winning the nomination, he completely steamrolled a number of state governors, several of whom were mentioned by name in the report, like Chris Christie and John Kasich. That’s not the fault of the RNC, to be sure; voters have this maddening tendency to make their own decisions, to the constant frustration of party elite.

The problem the GOP now faces, both at the federal and state level, is that their definition of a victory has changed. Today, Republicans all over the country will privately admit that they’d be thrilled to just maintain the status quo in 2020: Hold their majority in the U.S. Senate and re-elect Trump as president. In Maine, many Republicans would be happy with that result as well, re-electing Susan Collins and giving Donald Trump that electoral vote from the 2nd Congressional District again.

They shouldn’t be, though, because that’s not good enough. It’s not nearly good enough. The Republican Party is about more than just one or two people, and simply maintaining the status quo should be cause for relief, but not celebration. After all, that would mean that Democrats keep the majority in the U.S. House (including re-electing Jared Golden) and keep the majority in both chambers of the Maine Legislature. That result should be a cause for disappointment and alarm among all Maine Republicans. That’s treading water; it’s no different than running a business that barely makes enough money to pay its own bills. While you might be able to stay open that way, you’ll never prosper; it’s a sure sign of stagnation, not success. Some Republicans might be satisfied with that, but they’re the ones who are used to failure.

After Trump defeated Clinton four years ago, Republicans might have thought that his brand of populism offered them a new model toward electoral success. That was certainly understandable, as it gave them a new way to reach working-class white voters, possibly offsetting their losses among young people and minorities. When Trump won, it wasn’t just that he won the Rust Belt states, but that he won them in unexpected ways.

Trump hasn’t set off much of a populist movement within the wider Republican Party, though. While others have attempted to imitate his approach and supported his policies, there hasn’t been a wave of successful candidates in his mold. Part of the reason for that is that the 2018 midterms were a disaster for the GOP, but it’s also because there hasn’t been a concerted effort to examine why Trump won and how other candidates might learn from it.

Regardless of what happens in Maine and nationally in 2020, the Maine GOP ought to be prepared to do a thorough and comprehensive study of the results. They need to be prepared to completely transform the party in response, just as the RNC was in 2012. If they prove successful beyond their wildest dreams, they need to know why so they can replicate it, rather than simply resting on their laurels.

If they fail, they need to figure that out, too, so they don’t keep making the same mistakes over and over again. To do anything less would be a complete failure of leadership.

Jim Fossel, a conservative activist from Gardiner, worked for Sen. Susan Collins.
He can be contacted at: [email protected]
Twitter: @jimfossel

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