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RNC chair McDaniel looks to defend GOP majorities

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Michigan GOP chair Ronna Romney McDaniel took the stage during the final stop of President Trump’s December thank-you tour able to say something no Michigan Republican has been able to say in nearly 30 years: They had won the state for the GOP’s presidential nominee.

“We did it!” she declared, her arms outstretched.

{mosads}After helping to assure Trump’s Michigan win, McDaniel now faces yet another difficult task as chairwoman of the Republican National Committee (RNC): defending Republican seats while tied to an unpopular president and facing legislative malaise and adverse historical trends.

“My focus right from that moment was to hit the ground running,” McDaniel, 43, told The Hill in an interview from her Washington office as she talked about learning after the election from Trump and then-Chairman Reince Priebus that she would take over the RNC.

“You don’t want to lose the momentum we built in 2016, because I have to carry that into 2018.”

McDaniel’s new tenure comes at a time of historic power for the Republican Party, which holds the House, Senate and White House and just restored a conservative majority on the Supreme Court by confirming 49-year-old Justice Neil Gorsuch.

McDaniel’s rise to become the second woman in Republican history to chair the RNC came in part from a decision that put her at odds with her uncle, 2012 GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney.

The man she calls “Uncle Mitt” recorded robocalls framing Trump as a danger to the “prospects for a safe and prosperous future” in the days before Michigan’s primary. But McDaniel repeatedly said she’d stand by the will of her state’s voters.

And that’s what McDaniel did when Michigan chose Trump, a decision that won her praise from state Republicans despite mounting pressure throughout the campaign season over supporting the party’s controversial nominee.

She remained loyal throughout the turbulent campaign, a quality that goes far in Trump’s orbit and one that McDaniel said was forged by a candidate unwilling to treat the Wolverine State like a flyover state.

“I’m very loyal to him for listening to the people of Michigan and hearing those voices,” she said. 

But McDaniel faces many challenges as she looks to grow the GOP’s congressional majorities — or at least hang on to them. That’s thanks in no small part to the president’s record-low favorability, as well as a barrage of negative headlines that frustrated the GOP’s hope for a presidential honeymoon with voters.  

McDaniel told The Hill that she is looking to build on Priebus’s “fantastic” work running the party, where he made major investments in data and field programs. She added that the party could deepen its engagement with minorities, women and young voters by building a permanent presence in their communities.

A push to include those groups was a major part of the party’s autopsy report after the 2012 presidential election. But those efforts have frustrated the party, which won just 21 percent of the nonwhite vote in 2016 while also losing young and female voters by a double-digit margin.

“A lot of times with campaigns or parties, things are cyclical. We need a long-term strategy on how we continue to engage that goes beyond chair to char,” she said.

“Always, you are balancing resources with your strategy because you have to win elections. But we’ll put these outreach programs in states that are in play in 2018 and continue to expand that.”

While voters looking for a new start flocked to Trump and the Republicans, the GOP’s claim to an electoral mandate has proved short-lived. The left embraces the “resistance” to Trump, while White House turmoil, a botched ObamaCare repeal and the ongoing investigations into Trump’s ties to Russia muddle the party’s message.

The president’s approval rating hovers around 40 percent in a RealClearPolitics average of recent polls, while 53 percent disapprove of Trump’s presidency so far in that average. Trump’s disapproval rating nears 60 percent in some polls.

The GOP promised its voters an ObamaCare repeal for seven years, only to see the party’s first attempt at a replacement bill fail to even reach the House floor for a vote. But McDaniel pushed back at the narrative that a scuttled agenda could dampen enthusiasm with the base, instead touting Trump’s accomplishments so far and blaming Democrats for his setbacks, noting the lack of Democratic support for a healthcare plan and the recent Supreme Court filibuster. 

“What President Trump is facing from the Democrats really is unprecedented,” she said. 

“I think this is unprecedented, and I don’t think this is what the voters asked for. They wanted a change.”

McDaniel rattled off a list of Trump’s accomplishments in office, including Gorsuch’s Supreme Court confirmation, slashed regulations targeted at spurring economic growth and approved federal permits for the Keystone XL oil pipeline.

It’s progress that McDaniel believes will resonate with voters and cut back against the narrative from Democrats. 

Above all, McDaniel’s job is to win elections. That’s usually harder for a president’s party facing midterm elections, a historic trend that McDaniel admits challenges the party’s midterm efforts.

“You always have to assume the House is in play just because of history,” she said. “So you want to make sure you are running as if you are behind always. We’re taking the House very seriously. We want to maintain that majority; we want to expand that majority.”

While Trump threatens to back primary challenges to House Freedom Caucus members who opposed the House GOP’s ObamaCare replacement, McDaniel made clear that the RNC won’t take a side in primaries. Party bylaws prohibit backing candidates in primaries without unanimous consent from the state’s RNC members. 

“The president has every right to support candidates that are going to help him achieve his agenda. I don’t know what he’s going to do in the midterm. Certainly, that’s his prerogative,” she said. 

“When the party remains neutral, it’s easier to coalesce your base and heal behind the eventual nominee.” 

 McDaniel feels emboldened by the midterm Senate map, which has 10 Democratic-held Senate seats up for reelection in states that Trump won, compared with just one Republican incumbent running for reelection in a state that went for Democrat Hillary Clinton. She sees an opportunity for the GOP to grow its map in states such as Minnesota, Maine and Virginia as well.

The party already has regional directors in place and is hoping to announce state directors “soon,” she said.  

“The RNC has to continue to get into these states early, start engaging our base. … What we do in these states and how early we can get in will be a difference-maker,” she added. 

McDaniel’s largest test will come in November 2018, on the day of the midterm elections. But so far, RNC members like what they see, particularly as fundraising floods in.

Over the first three months of 2017, the RNC and Trump’s reelection campaign raised $53 million, according to The Wall Street Journal.

“The first thing I think all of us committee members want to see the RNC chair doing is doing well on the fundraising side, and they are doing very well, setting records,” said Henry Barbour, Mississippi RNC committeeman. “A lot of that is due to the enthusiasm that Donald Trump has brought to the party, but I can assure you Ronna is working the phones and going after the donors. … I am convinced she’s fully up to the task.”

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