The 2008 elections were equally disappointing for the Republicans. The country faced ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the meltdown of the U.S. financial system, ballooning unemployment, and other serious issues. As a result, President Bush was extremely unpopular with voters and Republican policies were increasingly seen as ineffective or marginal. Arizona senator John McCain, the Republicans' presidential nominee, selected Alaska governor Sarah Palin as his running mate. The pair were soundly defeated by the Democratic team of Barack Obama and Joe Biden. The Republicans lost multiple seats in both the Senate and the House. They dropped one governorship as well. These defeats left the party's leadership considering dramatic changes to the party. The loss of the one governorship was overcome in early 2009, however. On January 21, Jan Brewer, a Republican, succeeded Janet Napolitano, a Democrat, as governor of Arizona. Napolitano had resigned as Arizona governor of Arizona to become secretary of homeland security in the Obama administration. The November election defeats left the party’s leadership considering dramatic changes to the party. Michael S. Steele, former lieutenant governor of Maryland, took over as the party's national chair. He was the first African American to hold the post.
The GOP lost five U.S. House special elections in 2009. Yet the party rebounded somewhat in late 2009 and early 2010. In the November 2009 elections, Republicans won the governorships of New Jersey and Virginia. They also prevailed in a January 2010 special election to fill a Massachusetts U.S. Senate seat. It had been vacated by the death of Edward M. Kennedy. State senator Scott Brown defeated the state's attorney general Martha Coakley. Brown was the first Republican to be elected to the U.S. Senate from Massachusetts since 1972. His election gave the Republicans 41 seats, ending the Democrats' short-lived filibuster-proof majority. The GOP was successful in two of the four U.S. House special elections held during the first six months of 2010.
The Tea Party, a grassroots political movement focusing on fiscal conservatism, developed in the United States in 2009. The informal movement opposed what its members saw as excessive government spending. Tea Party rallies were held throughout the country. Originally independent of either major political party, the movement became a force within the GOP in 2010. Tea Party advocates endorsed a number of Republican candidates for congressional and gubernatorial contests in 2010, sometimes challenging and defeating Republican "establishment" candidates in primaries. A number of Tea Party activists, however, remained critical of both parties and suspicious of Republican intentions.
In the run-up to the 2010 midterm elections, Republicans stoked popular anxiety over economic malaise and continuing high unemployment. They denounced the Obama administration's policies as "socialist" and called for reduced taxes, reduced spending, and reduced deficits, although candidates rarely offered specific policy proposals. In the elections the Republicans won 60 more seats in the House, a historically large shift, and retook control. In the Senate, they reduced the Democratic majority to 53. They also took nine governorships. Within the Republican victories, the Tea Party's results were mixed. Several Tea Party candidates won victories, including the Senate races in Florida and Kentucky. In the Senate races in Nevada and Delaware, however, which the Republicans had expected to win, Democrats defeated Tea Party–endorsed candidates who were widely viewed as too extreme or too "flaky."
The divided Congress produced few positive results in 2011 and 2012. Democrats fended off Republican efforts to undo President Obama's health-care reform; Republicans were also largely frustrated in their attempts to impose austerity. For the presidential election, the GOP nominated Mitt Romney, an equity-capital investor and former Massachusetts governor. Beginning with a reputation as a moderate, Romney assumed strongly conservative positions in the primaries in order to win over the Republican base; he then moderated his positions in October to appeal to swing voters in the general electorate. In the election of Nov. 6, 2012, he lost to President Obama, 59.7 million to 57.1 million. Republicans retained control of the House but failed to win the Senate. Again, candidates associated with the Tea Party had mixed results. Ted Cruz, for example, won a Senate seat from Texas, but Tea Party candidates lost Senate races in Indiana and Missouri that Republicans had expected to win. In 2013 the Republican National Committee conducted an "autopsy" of the election, which focused on ways to expand the party's appeal. In particular, since Romney had won only 27% of the Hispanic vote, a growing sector of the electorate, the autopsy recommended efforts to win over at least part of that community.
In the 2014 midterm elections, Republicans increased their majority in the House by 13 seats (to 247-188). Only once before, in 1924, had the party won so many House seats. The GOP gained control of the Senate via a net gain of 9 seats (to 54-46). In the 36 gubernatorial elections held that year, Republicans had a net gain of 2 seats, giving them a total of 31. Republicans of all varieties performed well. Tea Party and establishment leaders of the party had sought to avoid conflict in these elections. Few Tea Party candidates challenged Republican incumbents. (In a significant exception, one defeated House majority leader Eric Cantor in a primary and went on to win the general election.) Many establishment candidates had adopted Tea Party rhetoric in their campaigns. Yet continuing divisions within the party threatened Republicans' ability to run Congress smoothly.
The 2016 presidential election brought out an unusual number of declared candidates, 17 in all. If nothing else, this made televised debates a logistical challenge. Most notable, however, was an apparent schism between the party "establishment" and its voter base. Perhaps spurred by exaggerated demands and promises made during past campaigns, many Republican voters had come to view their elected representatives as ineffective or corrupted. Thus, some of the most successful presidential candidates were those with the least connection to the party. Especially prominent was Donald J. Trump, a billionaire real-estate developer and television personality. With no experience in government or politics and little evident interest in policy details, Trump campaigned on his claims of superior intellect and competence. He appealed to middle-class anxieties in a time of economic uncertainty by denouncing illegal immigrants and unfair foreign-trade agreements and vaguely promising to "make America great again." He also drew support from white Americans anxious about the growing minority population. His remarks about immigrants—Mexican immigrants, in particular—undermined the party's hopes of improving its standing with Hispanic voters. His policy proposals, vague as they were, were often at variance with the party's positions. Thus he called for increasing spending on Social Security and Medicare and forcibly expelling all 11 million undocumented immigrants. He denounced lobbies, corporate interests, and the influence of rich campaign donors. He vowed to fund his campaign with his personal resources; in practice, he relied heavily on free television news coverage, which he attracted by making outlandish public statements. Another prominent candidate was Ted Cruz, the freshman senator from Texas. Although Cruz had more conventional credentials than Trump, he had spent his time in the Senate being uncooperative and chastising his own party's leaders. He blamed the GOP leadership for political failures, including predictable failures that he, himself, had caused. Thus Cruz was as despised by the leadership as Trump. Candidates favored by the establishment, however, were numerous and divided the anti-Trump/anti-Cruz vote among themselves. By early May, Trump had driven the other contenders out of the race and become the presumptive nominee. Despite his success in the primaries, Trump's approval ratings overall were abysmally poor. The party had selected a nominee who fulfilled neither of the usual criteria: electability and loyalty to the party and its principles. In July the party's two former presidents, the two most recent presidential nominees, the host-state governor, and nearly half the Senate Republicans refused to attend the convention. Cruz, who agreed to attend, gave a major address in which he failed to endorse the nominee; he admonished Republicans to "vote your conscience" in November. The pro-Trump delegates who dominated the convention then booed him off the stage on national television, symbolizing the divisions within the party.
Most Republican voters eventually rallied around the candidate, with the exception of some educated, white, suburban women. A number of prominent party leaders, however, either openly or tacitly refused to endorse him. Trump also had trouble extending his appeal to independent voters, although he performed well among white working-class men. He ignored virtually all the recommendations of the 2013 party autopsy. Although the polls predicted a narrow loss, and he lost the popular vote by 2.8 million, Trump won the electoral college with 306 votes versus Hillary Clinton’s 232 votes. The Republicans also retained control of the House and Senate, albeit with reduced majorities. Thus, as 2016 ended, the party's position in the country overall appeared strong. In addition to the White House and Congress, the GOP controlled the governorship and the whole legislature in 25 states, compared with five states for the Democrats.