Can Ronna McDaniel survive calls for her resignation?

Few seem to have the appetite for another public RNC chair battle so close to the 2024 presidential election

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From our January 2023 issue

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Republican National Committee chairwoman Ronna McDaniel was seething in her chair at the Miami performing arts center that housed the third GOP presidential candidates’ debate in November. Vivek Ramaswamy, the tech entrepreneur running an anti-establishment campaign, had just used his opening statement to publicly call on McDaniel to resign.

“I think there’s something deeper going on in the Republican Party here and I am upset about what happened last night. We’ve become a party of losers at the end of the day,” Ramaswamy said. “Ronna, if you want to come on stage tonight, you want to…

Republican National Committee chairwoman Ronna McDaniel was seething in her chair at the Miami performing arts center that housed the third GOP presidential candidates’ debate in November. Vivek Ramaswamy, the tech entrepreneur running an anti-establishment campaign, had just used his opening statement to publicly call on McDaniel to resign.

“I think there’s something deeper going on in the Republican Party here and I am upset about what happened last night. We’ve become a party of losers at the end of the day,” Ramaswamy said. “Ronna, if you want to come on stage tonight, you want to look the GOP voters in the eye and tell them you resign, I will yield my time to you.”

People in the room said McDaniel was visibly furious at the attack as her seatmate tried to calm her down. Other reports claimed McDaniel called Ramaswamy an “asshole” and promised that he’d never get a cent from the RNC.

“She basically wanted to throw hands,” a source who was present told me.

Ramaswamy’s call-out lit a powder keg that McDaniel had been sitting on for years. The Woke Inc. author was not the only one frustrated by the GOP’s recent inability to mitigate major losses in tough election seasons and take advantage when the winds were in their favor, leading to a series of disappointing cycles. And feelings toward McDaniel were especially sour that evening as Republicans were still reeling from a series of election losses the previous night, particularly in Kentucky and Virginia. Ramaswamy leveraged his viral moment into a data-collection website, FireRonna.com, and scores of conservative commentators and operatives echoed his calls. Republican operatives I spoke to acknowledge that although they are naturally skeptical of Ramaswamy and other right-wing grassroots attacks on McDaniel, there are legitimate reasons to be upset with her leadership.

“We have to have a functional party. We’re all cognizant of that,” a western GOP consultant told me. “I don’t actually hate Ronna, but like, somebody just tell me what the fuck that place is doing. Like, what is the strategic direction?”

Ronna Romney McDaniel was first tapped to become RNC chairwoman in 2017 by then-president-elect Donald Trump, who was reportedly impressed with her leadership of the Michigan GOP in the 2016 cycle. McDaniel took a novel approach to driving turnout for the Republican nominee. She opted not to blow the state party’s precious federal funds, which are harder to raise due to legal limitations, on Trump mailers and door-knocking efforts. Instead, she allowed the RNC to manage the Trump ground game and supplemented their efforts with the Michigan party’s state dollars to invest heavily in down-ballot candidates. The bottom-up strategy paid off; Trump was the first Republican to win Michigan in the general election since 1988 and McDaniel kept the Michigan GOP financially healthy in the process.

McDaniel and Trump quickly became something of a Republican power couple. Trump requested McDaniel drop “Romney” from her name amid his ongoing feud with her uncle, Mitt Romney. McDaniel complied and never looked back. Thanks to a newly invigorated GOP and a joint fundraising committee set up between the RNC and the president, McDaniel became a fundraising juggernaut and quickly gained the respect of the party.

However, the goodwill she earned began to evaporate after historically bad losses in the 2018 midterms and the turnover of the White House in 2020. Tens of millions of party dollars went to pay Trump’s legal fees. In 2022, Republicans were expecting a red wave given President Joe Biden’s abysmal approval ratings and a tanking economy. Instead, they gained just a slight majority in the House of Representatives and did not capture the Senate. Campaign staff in major races told me that the RNC was practically absent until the final few weeks of the election cycle, and what little resources it did have were used in already deep red areas rather than for swing races.

“We saw hardly any investment,” the western GOP strategist told me. “Just look at victory programs and the staffing levels. I get it’s a midterm, but I feel the funds were misallocated.”

The RNC’s failure to take advantage of the great political environment heading into 2022 sparked a challenge to McDaniel’s leadership. At that year’s annual RNC winter meeting, conservative lawyer Harmeet Dhillon and her allies whipped committee member votes in an attempt to unseat McDaniel. McDaniel, with the quiet backing of Trump and the GOP’s establishment donor class, prevailed 111-51.

“You can look at 2020 and say, ‘well, that was bigger than [McDaniel]. Fair enough.’ There are no excuses for 2022,” Ned Ryun, a Republican strategist who backed Dhillon’s bid, said. “The thing that’s troubling to me is she’s never going to come up with any of the right solutions.”

Even though McDaniel won re-election, cementing her as the longest serving RNC chair since the Civil War, her tenure over the past year has reignited party displeasure.

In the 2024 election cycle, Trump wanted McDaniel to preside over a sewn-up nomination process, essentially a coronation. McDaniel, though, supposedly felt she was duty-bound to preside over a fair process, and, trying to avoid angering Trump, accomplished neither. David Bossie, a Trump campaign official in both 2016 and 2020, was chosen to head up the RNC debates. Candidates have publicly criticized the process, alleging that it’s rigged in favor of the pseudo-incumbent.

“The polling system forced campaigns to start spending ludicrous amounts of money a year before the convention in order to make the debate stage,” a national GOP consultant explained. The system forced campaigns to hit a polling threshold and demonstrate a certain number of individual campaign donors to make the stage, with campaigns having to invest millions to achieve.

Meanwhile, devastating losses in the 2023 election cycle left Republicans looking for someone to blame.

Virginia Republicans, led by Governor Glenn Youngkin, invested enormous time and resources into trying to secure a Republican trifecta by winning both chambers of the General Assembly. Under the strategy laid out by Spirit of Virginia, Youngkin’s PAC, they came pretty close. GOP candidates overperformed and won every single district that Biden previously won by eight points or fewer. But Democrats still managed to eke out a two-seat advantage in the Senate and a three-seat advantage in the House of Delegates. Collectively, Republicans lost by less than 5,000 votes. Meanwhile, Democrats outspent Republicans by nearly $8 million, thanks to millions in outside spending from national Democratic groups. The RNC gave zero dollars to the GOP effort in Virginia.

As McDaniel made her way to the spin room after the third GOP debate, she was asked about the Virginia results by DC radio host Larry O’Connor.

“You know, the RNC’s not a state com- mittee. We’re a federal committee. Your candidates can take unlimited state dollars and your governor can take unlimited state dollars and he actually said, ‘We don’t need you guys here,’” McDaniel claimed. “We were told in the summer that they didn’t need us, that they had all the money and we were good.”

However, individuals familiar with what happened in the Virginia elections disputed McDaniel’s version of events. Youngkin’s team, they said, had met with the RNC in the spring and summer and it was made clear to them that the RNC did not plan to invest any money in Virginia. Instead, McDaniel offered the RNC’s legal services, which wasn’t much help since Spirit of Virginia already had its own legal department.

“The RNC was trying to step all over the operation that Republicans in Virginia had already built,” the western GOP strategist explained.

Rich Anderson, the chairman of the Republican Party of Virginia, said that he met with senior RNC staffers on October 9 to request that they match the DNC’s injection of $1 million into the state elections. The RNC denied his request.

“The RNC staffers explained that RNC donations were down because 2023 is an off year for the national parties and giving is therefore down as we go into the 2024 election cycle, which will be the most costly in American history,” Anderson told me. Spirit of Virginia officials also publicly pushed back on McDaniel’s claim that the GOP’s Virginia losses had nothing to do with a lack of RNC investment but were a function of candidates’ failure to defend themselves from Democratic attacks on anti-abortion policy.

“I watched all the ads in Virginia, the candidates on our side did not address [abortion],” McDaniel said.

In reality, Spirit of Virginia mounted a $1.4 million TV ad buy heralding Governor Youngkin’s proposed fifteen-week abortion ban with exceptions for rape and incest.

Justin Discigil, senior political director for Spirit of Virginia, responded to McDaniel’s comments on X with a series of screen- shots of news headlines about Youngkin’s abortion-focused ad campaign. “Apparently the RNC doesn’t even do press clips anymore,” Zack Roday, coordinated campaigns director for Spirit of Virginia, tweeted. “Add it to the list of things they’ve stopped doing.”

GOP consultants and strategists I spoke to for this story identified McDaniel’s remarks as a major strategic misstep. Not only did she add oxygen to the fire started by her critics, she got a ruler to the knuckles from Virginia operatives who otherwise weren’t interested in having a public beef with her.

“It is an extremely annoying thing for everyone involved,” one national consultant said. “I do think she just kind of reacted in the moment. The better answer is, ‘I felt that our team worked extremely well under the leadership of Governor Youngkin. This is a question for him.’”

The western GOP strategist asserted that the incident only magnified the RNC’s “current ineptitude.” Republican operatives agree that it confirmed the suspicion that McDaniel is generally neglecting state parties in favor of banking donor money for 2024 in anticipation of an anemic fundraising cycle. One high-level GOP consultant, though, pointed out that the current fundraising woes are by no means exclusive to the RNC or necessarily the fault of McDaniel.

“Like a lot of committees, the RNC enjoyed the fundraising of the Trump years and didn’t spend a lot of resources on acquisition of new donors,” they said. “Fundraising is low now because the DNC has an incumbent president and Ronna has to try to stay neutral during the primary.”

However, the western strategist pushed back on the idea that McDaniel couldn’t have scrounged some money for the 2023 cycle.

“I think it’s a bullshit excuse for the chairwoman,” the strategist said. “Pick up the fucking phone. You’re telling me you couldn’t call Todd Ricketts and say, ‘Hey, we need some help in Virginia? Can you and your boys get together for another $2.5 million?’”

“What does she have to offer any candidate who’s not running for president?” added the strategist.

Ned Ryun alleged that “anything positive happening in the field has nothing to do with the RNC at all, on any level.”

“People are doing major voter registration projects in battleground states, because we’ve all just assumed losers will continue to lose,” Ryun said.

Others feel McDaniel is more a victim of longevity. The national consultant suggested that anyone who stays on at a political committee long enough will make her fair share of enemies and added that most of McDaniel’s critics have unrealistic expectations of how much the RNC can actually contribute to grassroots efforts.

Regardless of whether they think McDaniel has outstayed her welcome, everyone seems to recognize that she’s not going anywhere for at least another election cycle. Anyone who challenges McDaniel has to win eighty-five committee member votes, and the bench of individuals who could unite the party’s conservative grassroots faction with the establishment donor class is shockingly shallow.

“I think if a real alternative were willing to emerge and step up, Ronna would be in very real trouble because there is a diverse enough set of factions who are sick of her shit,” the national consultant said.

“Until a credible person steps forward to do it, the whole conversation is moot” — of course, barring Trump deciding to turn on McDaniel, they added.

Few seem to really have the appetite for another public RNC chair battle so close to the 2024 presidential election; GOP operatives say they have become quite frustrated with the constant public attacks on McDaniel without a viable plan to make things better. The public division, the operatives agreed, only serves to alienate potential donors and fracture the party apparatus in a way that damages the entire party ahead of one of the most important presidential election cycles in modern history.

“At the end of the day, everybody needs the RNC to be functioning, and we can’t keep having the bickering and wars and things in public,” the western strategist said. “If the 2024 election were held today you would objectively be able to say the RNC was the weakest committee in terms of being able to put Republicans in office.”

“This is the team we have to field,” the high-level consultant agreed. “We are about to storm out of the locker room and these asshats are busy trying to coup the defensive coordinator.”

This consultant mused that if McDaniel manages to preside over a successful 2024 cycle amid all of the attempts to take her out, her legacy could look vastly different than the current situation would suggest.

“If the GOP takes back the White House, Ronna will have been there through the only ascension and re-ascension of Republicans in the White House since the Bush era,” they said. “Ronna is one of the few — if not the sole — survivors of the Trump era. She is a lightning rod for criticism, especially now, but she is still here… that is an accomplishment in and of itself.”

This article was originally published in The Spectator’s January 2024 World edition.

Amber Duke is The Spectator’s Washington editor and host of Unfit to Print on WCBM 680. She is the author of The Snowflakes’ Revolt: How Woke Millennials Hijacked American Media. Amber was previously White House correspondent for the Daily Caller and a co-host of O’Connor & Company on WMAL.

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