The fall of Ronna McDaniel

Like the party itself, McDaniel made changes and accommodations to aid and ally with Trump. Much
has been written
about her decision to drop her maiden name, Romney, at Trump’s behest. But the more consequential choice McDaniel made was to help move the party away from its establishment bearing — from which she herself came — into one that echoed Trump’s political fancies. She stood by him even after he threatened to form his own party, spread conspiracies about widespread fraud, lost the 2020 election and then attempted to overturn those results.

In the end, it wasn’t enough, and under pressure from Trump, McDaniel decided it was time to step aside. After a nearly two-hour meeting at Mar-a-Lago on Monday, Trump posted that McDaniel was a “friend” but that he would be “making a decision the day after the South Carolina Primary” on “RNC growth.”

Trump, said one RNC member, granted anonymity to speak freely, “is only loyal to himself. He’ll turn on his kids if he has to.” Of the Republican Party’s difficulties in recent years, the member said, “None of that stuff is her fault.”

The question for McDaniel now isn’t just whether it was all worth it, but whether she could have done anything differently.

“I think she’s just a very loyal person — she was loyal to Trump, she was loyal to her staff,” said another RNC member, who also was granted anonymity to talk freely about McDaniel. “I like her. … I think she is a good person.”

But, the member added, “I think she was a failed chair.”

Few, if any, argue that McDaniel’s tenure was an overall electoral success for the RNC. The Republican Party gained two Senate seats but
lost 40
in the House during the 2018 midterms, lost both chambers of Congress and the presidency in 2020 and underperformed in 2022. Beyond that, her critics point to McDaniel’s failure to overhaul longtime RNC staff even as the party suffered those electoral losses, and note the downturn in fundraising.

McDaniel’s supporters — and even some skeptics — say she faced a chorus of contradictory criticism that made her situation difficult. Throughout her tenure, she was derided both for doing too little or too much to support Trump. And it was Trump, they say, that bore the brunt of responsibility for the party’s failure that she often was given.

The former president’s actions in office, his handling of Covid and his legal troubles all made the job of RNC chair exceedingly more complicated. Voters turned on the GOP because of him, not because its national committee didn’t have a more advanced digital operation.

“If you said to me what could Ronna have done better for the party, I don’t know that I know that answer,” said Oscar Brock, the national committeeman from Tennessee who opposed her reelection to a fourth term last year. “She was certainly a lieutenant of Donald Trump. He’s been the leader of the party, not Ronna.”

Even the RNC’s recent fundraising problems were, to a degree, a byproduct of Trump, Republicans say, with the former president vacuuming up small-dollar donors for his own campaigns and repelling some large, institutional contributors from the party.

“They’re not only not getting the small-dollar donations,” said former Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker. “A lot of the bigger donors are either staying out if they don’t like Trump, or they’re giving directly to the president.”

For McDaniel, he said, “It’s a really, really tough spot to be in.”

But McDaniel was also not some passive participant in the Trump era. She was a top deputy, shifting millions of dollars of committee resources to meet his priorities — whether they be election integrity efforts or covering his legal bills.

Ultimately, her performance as chair “speaks for itself,” said another RNC member, granted anonymity to speak freely. “We lost the House, the Senate and the White House while she was chair — the only time it’s ever happened in the history of the RNC.”

Despite those historic losses, McDaniel remained popular among many RNC members and top donors. She overwhelmingly won reelection last winter even after facing a serious challenger.

Her defenders argue she had underappreciated successes: opening community centers across the country to expand the RNC’s reach with minorities, creating an “Election Integrity” department, severing ties with the Committee on Presidential Debates, growing the RNC’s email list from 3 million to 50 million subscribers, and helping launch WinRed, the alternative to the Democrats’ small-dollar online fundraising portal. She issued early warnings to Republican candidates in 2022 that they needed to refine their messaging on abortion to appeal to suburban women.

Ultimately, however, the party couldn’t find that right messaging. And the work she pursued elsewhere may be coming apart: Recent reports suggest that those much-publicized community centers
are now closing
.

On Wednesday, McDaniel issued a note to committee members saying she remained “committed to our mission” and that “rumors to the contrary are simply not true.”

A spokesperson for the RNC did not comment beyond a statement released Tuesday night about McDaniel’s position, stating, “Nothing has changed. This will be decided after [the] South Carolina [primary].”

Though McDaniel enjoyed a proximity to Trump that few others possessed, over the past several months, the former president and his team let their frustration be known over the RNC’s allocation of resources and its decision to host primary debates. McDaniel had vowed to be neutral in the race and stood by that pledge. But after Nikki Haley’s loss to Trump in New Hampshire, she took a step in Trump’s preferred direction, saying it was time “to unite” around the former president as the likely nominee. That proved insufficient.

There were whispers of a forthcoming resignation announcement by McDaniel as the committee gathered last week in Las Vegas. And some members aired grievances about her handling of the committee’s finances during a members-only meeting last Wednesday, according to two people with knowledge of the discussions. But the RNC’s 168 members — there at the Horseshoe Casino — largely carried on with business and speculation about an imminent departure subsided.

When news of her pending exit broke on Tuesday evening, it caught many members off guard and prompted a flurry of telephone calls. When it became clear it was true, some openly wondered if McDaniel should have done what so many others who visit Vegas or work for Trump failed to do: Know when to fold ‘em.

“I think the one thing she could have done differently is not run for reelection a year ago,” said Brock. “When we collectively underperformed for three cycles in a row, someone’s got to take the blame. Someone’s got to take the fall.”


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