Washington — After a year as chief of the Republican National Committee, Ronna Romney McDaniel is preparing for her greatest challenge since helping President Donald Trump win Michigan — holding on to control of the U.S. House and Senate in the fall midterm elections.
A wave of retirements by senior Republicans and Trump’s unpopularity are adding to the difficulty, though the former chair of the Michigan Republican Party said she doesn’t expect a backlash against the president to weigh down Republicans at the ballot box.
“I don’t have concern about that — especially now that we’re starting to see the impact of tax reform,” she said in a recent interview with The Detroit News. “We have accomplishments to run on as a party.”
Trump chose McDaniel because she got results — making him the first GOP presidential candidate to carry the state in 28 years.
But since the Civil War, the party that holds the White House has usually lost House seats in midterm elections — 33 on average — and the problem is exacerbated when the president’s approval rating is in the dumps, political scientists say. Trump had the lowest average approval rating of any elected president in his first year, according to Gallup.
“Everyone knows this year is not going to be easy,” said Rep. Fred Upton, Michigan’s senior Republican in Congress.
“She was put in that spot knowing that she’s never lost, and she’s going to be garnering a lot of resources to make sure the gavel stays in Republican hands.”
Friends and colleagues describe McDaniel as a steadfast lieutenant to the president, a hardworking fundraiser and an effective spokesperson for not only the Republican Party but the administration. She helps to get out Trump’s message — particularly when she thinks the media get it wrong.
The granddaughter of three-term Michigan Gov. George Romney, the 44-year-old McDaniel is the latest generation of her family to get into politics. McDaniel worked her way up in the party and served as a national committeewoman for Michigan before becoming state party chair in 2015.
“She’s a tireless worker. She really is. She always has a smile on her face, and she makes people around her feel good,” said Ron Weiser, who took the helm of the Michigan GOP after McDaniel’s departure.
Romney family divisions
Her ascension to the RNC — the second woman to hold the chairmanship and the first in 40 years — has also shined a spotlight on the split within her family.
McDaniel backed Trump when he became the nominee, going so far as to remove a member of the state party who refused to back him. Her uncle Mitt Romney, the 2012 GOP presidential nominee and former Massachusetts governor, harshly criticized Trump during the 2016 campaign and, more recently, his endorsement of Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore, an accused sexual predator.
“When you have a high-profile family member that feels differently than you, it obviously makes news,” said Katie Walsh, the former White House deputy chief of staff who is now a senior adviser to McDaniel. “Ronna was very public in her support for the president. She was very proud of that.”
Now, her uncle, a Detroit native, might run for U.S. Senate in Utah to succeed retiring GOP Sen. Orrin Hatch. Is he going for it?
“I get asked that a lot, and for that reason I don’t ask him. I can honestly say that I do not know,” she said. “I’ll probably find out when everybody else does.”
The Romney political dynasty has had governors and presidential candidates but never a senator, though several Romneys have tried.
McDaniel’s mother, Ronna Romney, ran unsuccessfully for Senate in Michigan in 1996, losing to Sen. Carl Levin, D-Detroit; and McDaniel’s grandmother, Lenore Romney, ran for Senate in Michigan in 1970. Mitt Romney unsuccessfully challenged Democratic Sen. Ted Kennedy in Massachusetts in 1994.
“Utah is a little different state than Massachusetts and Michigan. If Mitt decides to run, he has a lot of popularity in that state because of what he did to turn around the Olympics,” McDaniel said, referring to the 2002 games in Salt Lake City. “I think it would be very hard to beat him.”
She said party divisions can distract from policy goals, and she doesn’t shy away from “getting involved” when warranted, she said.
“I’m a big believer in picking up the phone and having a conversation before going in front of the cameras,” McDaniel said.
So when Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Arizona, on the Senate floor last month compared Trump’s rhetoric to that of former Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin, he heard from McDaniel.
“I felt like I needed to respond, and I did see him later that day,” she said. “I think he crossed the line.”
McDaniel last week accepted the resignation of RNC Finance Director Steven Wynn amid allegations of sexual misconduct against the casino mogul and GOP mega donor.
She has come under pressure to give back his donations to the Republican committee but has said they will only be returned after the claims against Wynn are investigated.
Alabama Senate ruckus
McDaniel wouldn’t say whether she thought it was a mistake for the RNC to invest on Moore’s behalf in Alabama after allegations that he courted and molested teenage girls decades ago. Moore lost the Dec. 12 special election to Democrat Doug Jones.
Some Republicans were upset with the RNC’s decision. At a December dinner for McDaniel hosted by GOP donor Bobbie Kilberg in northern Virginia, Kilberg told the party chairwoman she was against the move.
“There are some things that are more important than a vote in the Senate,” Kilberg later told Politico. “Some things are more important, such as what the party stands for.”
Trump felt it was important for his agenda to keep the Senate majority, McDaniel said.
“The RNC is the political arm of the White House, and we’re going to support the president,” McDaniel told The News.
Critics said McDaniel took her deference to Trump too far when she reportedly stopped using the name Romney at his suggestion. McDaniel said that’s a “false story,” as she hasn’t changed her name.
“He joked about it with my husband,” McDaniel said of Trump. “And my husband was like, ‘Hey, it’s nice to not have my name forgotten.’ My husband was thrilled about it, and the president knows that I emphasize the McDaniel more.”
She added: “The president and I have disagreed about things. We have robust discussions. We have a great relationship. But there’s no person on the planet who would tell me, ‘Change your name’ — even the president of the United States — and I would say, ‘OK.’ ”
McDaniel did stop using Romney professionally when she got to the RNC, in part because as Michigan chair, people often dropped the “McDaniel” when introducing her, she said.
“Especially being on the road away from my kids and my husband four to five days a week, I just felt that their name needed to be recognized ... because those are the three people sacrificing more than anybody for me to be in this job,” she said.
On the road again
The biggest adjustment for McDaniel at the RNC has been the travel — more than 90,000 miles in 2017 for fundraising trips alone, including visits to 27 states, she said.
She tries to get back to her Northville home most weekends to see her husband and children, ages 12 and 14.
“People forget that the president picked a working mom from Michigan to run the party, and the president doesn’t often get a lot of credit for that,” Walsh said.
“The fact of the matter she spends four to five days a week away from her family, traveling. That’s not an easy thing to ask any mom to do.”
The travel — along with spending up to seven hours a day on the phone fundraising — has paid off. The RNC raised $132.5 million last year, which is a record for a party in a non-election year and nearly double the $67 million raised by the Democratic National Committee.
The Republican committee had nearly $39 million on hand at year’s end, compared with $6.5 million reported by the DNC, which also reported $6 million in debt.
The cash has continued to build the party’s on-the-ground infrastructure in battleground states and investment in voter data that began under former chairman Reince Priebus.
“The RNC has done more to prepare for this midterm than we’ve ever done in our history. We’ve made more voter contacts, we already have our ground game in place, and our data investment has continued to be spot-on,” McDaniel said.
“We’re not taking anything for granted.”
Ronna Romney McDaniel
Job: Chairwoman, Republican National Committee
Family: Husband Patrick McDaniel and children Abigail, 14, and Nash, 12
Education: Bachelor’s degree in English from Brigham Young University
Experience: Former chair of the Michigan Republican Party and former national committeewoman