WASHINGTON — Ronna McDaniel's behind-the-scenes campaign for a fourth term as chairwoman of the Republican National Committee began midmorning on what would become a hellish day for the GOP: Nov. 8, the day of the midterm elections.
An ally, Richard Porter, an RNC member from Illinois, met with her in Washington to make sure she wanted to run for another two-year term. Porter told McDaniel that she'd done a terrific job and that she had a rare ability to walk a high wire between forces who remain loyal to former President Donald Trump and those who don't, according to two people familiar with their conversation.
McDaniel told Porter she would run again if the members of the RNC wanted her to stay. Later that day, he and a small clutch of McDaniel loyalists launched a member-to-member whip operation to gather support.
Over the next 10 days, as Republican leaders blamed one another publicly for the disappointing midterm results — with McDaniel absorbing a heavy helping of criticism — Porter's whip team secured commitments for an endorsement letter from 101 of the RNC's 168 members.
“This has really been kind of member-driven,” said Michael Whatley, the chair of the North Carolina GOP, who said he signed the letter without hesitation because McDaniel has been responsive to state party leaders' needs. "For me, it was not a close call. Every single time I called her, the answer was yes. ... I’m not surprised that folks coalesced behind her or around her as quickly as they did.”
McDaniel's campaign to lock down votes stands out as a model of speed and efficiency — shutting down most would-be rivals — and for her ability to create any point of consensus within a party that is in open warfare over its future and Trump's place in it. More important, at a time when some RNC members see Trump as an anchor weighing down the party, McDaniel has convinced many of them that she can maintain independence from him in the 2024 primaries.
"We've got to do a little bit of a moon dance away from Donald Trump, or an Irish exit," an RNC member who signed the letter said on condition of anonymity to avoid upsetting an employer. "He has been a visionary. But he also brings a lot of baggage and negative with him. And, you know, he doesn’t always have the best judgment. So I think it’s just for the good of the party. We’ve got to make sure that the field is wide open."
That's a triple-edged sword for McDaniel, who faces conflicting perceptions about her loyalties. There are those who want the RNC to remain steadfastly neutral in the 2024 primaries. But then there are the many Trump diehards who want the RNC chair to help him — or at least worry that whatever "neutrality" McDaniel promises might be a euphemism for putting a thumb on the scale to harm him. And the most ardent Trump critics among RNC members say McDaniel, Trump's pick for the post six years ago, is too close to him.
Bill Palatucci, an RNC member from New Jersey, said he opposes McDaniel's re-election for that reason.
“A lot of people want somebody clearly independent of Trump,” Palatucci said. “People have got to be willing to take on Donald Trump and tell him to sit down. Everybody professes neutrality, but I want somebody that is truly independent and willing to stand up to him.”
Palatucci said he doesn’t believe — despite endorsements now numbering 107 following a second letter of support — that McDaniel has "sewn up" a secret-ballot election that will be held at the party's winter meeting next month.
If she wins and serves another full two-year term, McDaniel would become the longest-tenured RNC chair since Edwin Morgan, who was the committee's first leader from 1856 to 1864 and returned from 1872 to 1876. She declined a request for an interview.
Emma Vaughn, a spokeswoman for her re-election campaign, said McDaniel, a former Michigan GOP chairwoman, is still talking to RNC members about the party's future.
"Just like the RNC, Chairwoman McDaniel’s decision to run for re-election was member-driven," Vaughn said in a statement to NBC News. "Members of the 168 rallied around the chairwoman because of her unprecedented investments in the grassroots, election integrity and minority communities, and for taking on Big Tech and the biased Commission on Presidential Debates."
Vaughn added that McDaniel is "humbled by this support" and "looks forward to speaking with each and every member to discuss how the party can continue building upon our investments and make the necessary improvements to compete and win in 2024.”
While McDaniel drew a challenge this week from California RNC member Harmeet Dhillon and MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell has said he will run, other hopefuls concluded that the race was over before it began. A senior official on Trump’s 2016 campaign, David Bossie, an RNC member from Maryland, threw his endorsement to McDaniel last week after he explored his own bid.
Rep. Lee Zeldin, R-N.Y., who had publicly weighed a campaign for chair, fumed in a statement Wednesday that McDaniel's re-election was "baked in," and he excoriated her over Republicans' disappointing performances in the 2018, 2020 and 2022 elections.
During the midterm campaign, McDaniel expressed confidence in the GOP's chances to win the Senate and credited National Republican Senatorial Committee Chair Rick Scott with victories that never materialized.
“I’d say Nevada and Georgia are the two top pickups right now,” she said in Reno, Nevada, in October. She lauded Scott for having made early investments in those states and others that she said had kept Republicans competitive. “He will have all the credit for that decision when we win back the Senate.”
Republicans lost Nevada the same day McDaniel told Porter she would seek another term, and they lost Georgia on Tuesday, when Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock beat Republican Herschel Walker in a runoff.
McDaniel's backers and many other Republicans believe she has run into a Trump-force headwind in each election cycle — that the party has struggled in spite of her work, rather than because of it.
The midterms in 2018, when Democrats took control of the House, were fought against the backdrop of his miserable approval ratings. Trump lost re-election in 2020 after a chaotic response to the Covid-19 pandemic. And while Republicans netted a handful of seats in the House this year, Republicans lost ground in the Senate as several of his hand-picked political-outsider candidates flamed out.
McDaniel has initiated an audit to dissect what went wrong in the midterms. Meanwhile, the Trump effect on GOP fortunes is the primary concern for some McDaniel backers.
“Even the people who are diehard supporters of the president and maybe still wear the red MAGA hats and have the T-shirts that say ‘Miss Me Yet?’ — when you say to them that the American public in general is not sending him back to the White House, they pause for two or three seconds and they say, ‘Yes, I know,’” said Jim Dicke, an RNC member from Ohio who whipped support for McDaniel from other members and signed the letter backing her for another term.
For McDaniel to lose, an opponent would have to win the remaining undecided RNC members and swipe nearly two dozen avowed McDaniel backers.
Lori Klein Corbin, an RNC member from Arizona who hasn’t committed to any candidate, said McDaniel hasn’t asked for her vote yet.
"I think she realizes that we had a pretty rough election here," Corbin said, pointing to GOP defeats in a series of races in the state last month. "I'm sure she'll reach out at some point. And you know, I love Ronna very much, but I have to do the will of my constituents in my state. If they don't want us to continue doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results, then I have to agree with them."
But the majority view among the 168 voters who matter most in RNC elections is that McDaniel is doing her job well.
“I get the folks that think there’s more to be done, but the reason I’m supporting the chairman is because she has laid out a plan we’ve all agreed to and she’s performed it to the full extent possible,” said J.L. Spray, an RNC member from Nebraska. “It worked in many cases, didn’t work in some. She’s open-minded about a deep dive into the last cycle. So I don’t know what more I could ask from somebody.”
Spray, who signed the letter supporting McDaniel, said his work with her as chair of the party's subcommittee on presidential primary debates convinced him that her eyes are cast in the right direction.
"We need to look forward, not backward," Spray said, "and Ronna is committed to looking forward, not backward."