Can Ronna Romney McDaniel unite a fractured Republican Party?

Ronna Romney McDaniel, then chairwoman of the Michigan Republican Party, leads a panel of Republican women to discuss the topic "All Issues are Women's Issues," at the Sheraton hotel on Sept. 19, 2016 in Novi, Mich. (Kimberly P. Mitchell/Detroit Free Press/TNS)
Ronna Romney McDaniel, then chairwoman of the Michigan Republican Party, leads a panel of Republican women to discuss the topic "All Issues are Women's Issues," at the Sheraton hotel on Sept. 19, 2016 in Novi, Mich. (Kimberly P. Mitchell/Detroit Free Press/TNS)

Credit: Kimberly P. Mitchell

Credit: Kimberly P. Mitchell

On the night before the election, Pete Hoekstra stood onstage at a Michigan convention center, introducing the lineup of speakers at Donald Trump's final rally of the campaign.

The former congressman welcomed a professor to the podium for the Pledge of Allegiance, then a GOP county chair. But the next speaker required something of a caveat.

"She's got a special name," he acknowledged. "Some of you may be surprised. But we love her. Ronna" — his voice dropped conspiratorially — "Romney" — it rose again — "McDaniel."

Out strode the then-chair of the Michigan GOP, who demanded of the rowdy crowd, "Are you ready to talk to your friends and your family, so we can make America great again?"

McDaniel, now the newly elected chair of the Republican National Committee, knows something about talking Trump with family. She publicly bucked her own famous family members — particularly Uncle Mitt — and much of the Michigan old guard with her early and enthusiastic backing of Trump, embracing the grass-roots energy that fueled his campaign while attempting to corral support from the skeptical GOP establishment.

In her first major interview with a national print news organization as RNC chair, she addressed her challenge of balancing a Trump-adoring grass roots that is more loyal to him than to the Republican brand with the more traditional GOP establishment, whose support, money and talent she will need to hold on to the party's congressional majorities in 2018.

"We have to keep this new coalition of Trump voters engaged. And they represent Democrats, more independents and people who hadn't voted for a long time because they lost their faith in government," she said in an interview with McClatchy.

The first step is to highlight economic promises on which Trump is delivering — like pulling out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

"We've got to help share that message with those voters and then turn them into Republicans, so they support candidates aside from President Trump," she said. "That's going to be something we're going to be focusing on the next two years."

As she works toward that goal while attempting to re-engage Trump-skeptical suburban Republicans by stressing economic issues and the Supreme Court, the broader GOP effort will get a boost from Trump himself: "President Trump has committed that he is going to work to elect Republicans across the board in the midterms. He's supportive of the RNC," she said.

Amid preparation for the midterms and planning for 2020, the test for any RNC chair is "always trying to keep people feeling united, even when they disagree," said Jennifer Horn, a former New Hampshire GOP chair who has worked with McDaniel and is a fan. "There's the good and the bad, and her job is going to be to keep the party growing in the same direction regardless."

A family balancing act

McDaniel, the second female RNC chair in history, has had a foothold in both the grass roots and the establishment camps of the GOP from her earliest days in Republican politics.

She grew up next door to her grandfather, the late George Romney, a former governor of Michigan and a giant in Michigan GOP circles who made the Romney name synonymous with "establishment." At a recent dinner at Sonoma, a trendy wine bar and restaurant on Capitol Hill, McDaniel regaled RNC members with stories about her grandfather, and the lessons he'd taught her about fiscal responsibility and love of country.

But McDaniel, 43, has also been shaped by the more populist politics of her mother, Ronna Romney, who worked as a conservative talk-radio host and twice ran for the Senate unsuccessfully. During her 1994 primary effort, Ronna Romney was mentioned in the same stories as firebrand radio host Rush Limbaugh, and she told The New York Times that "I am the voice of the frustrated American."

"There are some people who consider Ronna Romney senior the original tea party person in Michigan," said Stu Sandler, a longtime GOP operative in Michigan who has worked with McDaniel. "Ronna Romney senior — very conservative, very outsider, really considered the anti-establishment, and it got Ronna junior a lot of support when she ran for state chair. The first time people remembered her mother, saw her daughter's political beliefs, they said, 'This is a new generation of conservative leadership.'"

McDaniel, whom some longtime Michigan politicos still remember as "Little Ronna," served as her mother's driver during that 1994 campaign — her first job in politics. The race divided the Romney clan: Ronna Romney was supported by Mitt Romney but did not receive the endorsement of George Romney, who at that point was her ex-father-in-law (he cited previous commitments to her opponent, Spencer Abraham, who later won).

McDaniel named both her mother and her grandfather as her political influences in a 2015 interview, though she dismissed the idea that there were significant ideological differences between the two in her interview with McClatchy.

She downplayed those differences as they might relate to herself too. "I'm a Republican; I'd say I'm a conservative Republican. My job as RNC chair is to elect Republicans all across this country."

McDaniel, who is Mormon, graduated from Brigham Young University and worked for a time at a Washington-area political media firm before settling in suburban Detroit with her husband, insurance executive Patrick McDaniel, and their two young children.

She rose to political prominence in 2012, when she spearheaded a "Women for Mitt" effort on her uncle's behalf in Michigan. From there, McDaniel's political career took off: She was elected Michigan Republican national committeewoman in 2014, and in 2015 she won the state party chairmanship. She developed a reputation for getting along well with the donor class while prioritizing engagement of the conservative grass roots.

McDaniel is personable, fair-minded and hardworking, say people who have dealt with her. She is also deeply loyal to the party — a commitment that was put under severe strain by Donald Trump.

The Trump test

McDaniel, like other party chairs, was neutral in the GOP primary. But she quickly understood Trump's potential in Michigan, even as her uncle became one of the country's foremost Trump critics. As Mitt Romney was calling Trump a "fraud" and a "phony," McDaniel was preparing for a major push to unite her party around the GOP nominee.

"She spent a lot of time with the donor community, which was not very excited, initially, for President Trump," said Greg McNeilly, a Michigan GOP operative who has advised McDaniel.

Many of them, who had been devoted Mitt Romney supporters, agreed with his assessment of the bombastic presidential candidate. McDaniel heard them out.

"A lot of it was patiently just letting them vent, and then as they would get that out of the system, she would start to point out things he was doing or saying that they'd agree with, or policies he was adopting that were in line with their views," McNeilly said. "It was a very tailored approach. She must have worked to convert hundreds of donors and key activists to at least being neutral."

She tapped a network of Michigan GOP power brokers who were out of reach for the scrappy, grass-roots-oriented Trump acolytes focused on the blue-collar voters who had few ties to the Republican Party.

"Being a Romney, being involved in Romney's presidential campaign, being related to some of these people, her experience and connections were very, very helpful," said Scott Hagerstrom, who was Trump's Michigan state director.

By virtue of being a Romney, she also faced — and still faces, to some extent — skepticism from Trump loyalists over her commitment to helping him and his movement. Yet toward the end of the campaign, McDaniel made clear that she had run out of patience with party officials who were still voicing opposition to Trump: She ousted Wendy Day, a grass-roots vice chair of the state GOP and an outspoken Trump critic.

"There were a lot of people that were looking to her, because of her family name, to see how she would handle a situation like that; would she be weak on it," said Katie Packer, Mitt Romney's 2012 deputy campaign manager, who has deep ties to Michigan and was herself a strong Trump critic but a big fan of McDaniel's. "She was very, very committed to Trump as the nominee of the party."

It wasn't always easy.

"Family means a lot to her, and I know she took pressure from her family," said Hoekstra, adding, "She didn't dwell on it, it was kind of like ... 'No bitterness, but hey, on this one, in my family we've got a split. I've got a job to do; I'm going to go do it.'"

Asked about those disagreements, McDaniel replied: "My Uncle Mitt and I felt a little different about this election, and we spoke about that privately, but it's family and not all families agree in politics. I think that's pretty normal and something a lot of people can relate to, especially this election."

Mitt Romney was also among the first to email McDaniel with congratulations and offers to help however he could after she accepted the RNC job, she said. Asked how he could do that, she replied, "All Republicans in our party, anyone who's held a nomination or been leaders in the party, can help us elect Republicans across this country, campaign, be a surrogate, help share our message."

During the campaign, however, the stress of that dynamic sometimes spilled out into the open, as Trump supporters vilified Mitt Romney for his harsh criticisms of the candidate.

At the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, Michigan's delegation was asked to hold back on casting its votes for Trump in order to allow New York, Trump's home state, to put him over the top in the delegate total. When it appeared that only Michigan had been asked to stand down, McDaniel said, in earshot of reporters, "It feels like a Romney thing."

She later retracted the remark, but she emphasized her maiden name when she ultimately cast Michigan's votes: "My name is Ronna Romney McDaniel, chairman of the Michigan Republican Party," she said as she cast the bulk of her state's votes for Trump.

Building the Ronna brand

In Washington these days, she more often goes simply by Ronna McDaniel. The RNC news release announcing her new position did not reference "Romney." Emails and letters that she has circulated in Republican circles are often signed "Ronna McDaniel," a break from the political brand she established in Michigan. (The names are "interchangeable," she said. "Everyone can just call me Ronna.")

But she has an opportunity now to build a new brand, because she was relatively unknown to many on the Republican National Committee as she started her chairmanship this year.

Rob Gleason, who served for a decade as the chairman of the Pennsylvania Republican Party before stepping down after the election, noted that McDaniel has served for only a short stretch of time on the national committee.

"In that period of time, I didn't get to know her. A lot of people don't know her," he said.

McDaniel has several big things going for her, however, as she seeks to win over the trust and confidence of these influential Republican activists.

They know she helped oversee Trump's Michigan win, the first victory by a Republican presidential candidate in that state since 1988. She has already proved to be a strong fundraiser. And most importantly, she has the backing of White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, the former RNC chair who is near-universally beloved by the 168 members of the committee.

She will need full RNC support heading into several intense years, as she works to keep Republican majorities in the 2018 midterm elections and to ready the party for the 2020 presidential re-election campaign.

As part of that effort, several people who have spoken with her say she is aware of the need to re-engage those Republicans who followed in her uncle's footsteps and did not vote for Trump.

Pressed for specifics about how to do that, she suggested Republicans should be highlighting developments like Trump's nomination of conservative Neil Gorsuch to be a Supreme Court justice, as well as Trump's efforts to roll back regulations and kick-start the Keystone XL Pipeline.

She added that continued investments in the RNC ground game will help officials communicate about consensus Republican achievements in Washington to moderate, affluent Republicans around the country — the same approach she took to Trump skeptics in Michigan.

"I'm a suburban mom. I grew up in Oakland County, Michigan. These are people I know well; this is my community," she said, adding that she has seen more of them warm to Trump since his election.

Henry Barbour, the influential Republican national committeeman from Mississippi, said McDaniel was in a good position to make the case to moderate suburban voters as well as to the Rust Belt Trump supporters who backed the president but didn't typically vote Republican.

"She very naturally connects with a lot of people who we need to get and keep on board," he said. "Those are people in the Midwest, and I think those are suburbanite-type voters."

For McDaniel, it's the latest balancing act in a political life full of them. And in Washington, away from the legacies and reputations of the rest of her famous family, she'll be handling this one on her own.

"Ronna is very much her own person," Packer said. "She's close with her family — she loves her family — she's got her own values and own mind. She is just her own person."