Why the Senate GOP's McDaniel for RNC caucus is surprisingly small
Ronna McDaniel has more fans than foes among GOP lawmakers in her bid to remain RNC chair. Another camp, however, might be most telling: Hill Republicans who are completely apathetic about their national party leader.
McDaniel has presided over three election cycles during which her party lost the Senate and the White House while ending up with a slimmer-than-expected House majority. Now, as she faces two challengers in her race to lock down a fourth term this week, McDaniel’s confronting a tepid level of support at the top rungs of Capitol Hill.
“I don’t care,” Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.), a former state GOP chair, said when asked about McDaniel’s future. “I was surprised she wanted to run again. Why would you put yourself through that? But it’s her call.”
Though Cramer isn’t calling for McDaniel to be replaced, his shrug-emoji reaction is widespread among many GOP lawmakers. That has more to do with large-scale political changes than her personally: The more that super PACs, party committees and candidate fundraising have decentralized the party, the less enmeshed Republican lawmakers are in the RNC structure.
As Sen. Cynthia Lummis (R-Wyo.) put it on Tuesday: “I don’t know what the RNC does. I really don’t.”
Yet McDaniel’s chilly reception from some Republicans also stems from her mixed record, which includes an eyebrow-raising move to censure two former House Republicans who joined the Jan. 6 committee. With the GOP facing an identity crisis after Donald Trump left the White House, the RNC chair is poised to play a pivotal role in the party’s navigation of an open presidential primary next year. And senior Senate Republicans aren’t exactly clamoring for two more years of McDaniel.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and GOP Whip John Thune are both avoiding an endorsement of any candidate in the RNC race. A handful of notable Republican senators do support McDaniel, including Lindsey Graham (S.C.), Thom Tillis (N.C.) and her cousin Mitt Romney (Utah), who said that “we don't always agree on all policies, but I stand with family.”
“She has been so helpful to Iowa, in really fleshing out the first-in-the-nation caucus … she does a great job,” said No. 4 Senate Republican Joni Ernst of Iowa. “She can promote Republican candidates as much as possible and try to hold our party together. But at the end of the day, you have to have candidates that will make their case.”
National Republican Senatorial Committee Chair Steve Daines (R-Mont.) and Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith (R-Miss.) also signed a letter backing McDaniel. Emma Vaughn, a spokesperson for McDaniel’s RNC campaign, said that “Just like the RNC, Chairwoman McDaniel’s decision to run for re-election was member-driven.”
“Support for the chairwoman among members and leaders from across the ecosystem has grown since her announcement,” Vaughn said.
But most Republican senators want nothing to do with the RNC race. Several said they didn’t even know when the vote is (it’s Friday).
“I have a lot of things on my plate. That’s not one of them. I wish them all well,” said Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas).
One thing that unites both McDaniel backers and those who care little about the race is that they don’t see the RNC as primarily accountable for the GOP’s recent election performances. That’s in part because of Trump’s outsized sway since McDaniel took over the national party.
What’s more, the days of Howard Dean’s 50-state DNC strategy or Haley Barbour’s storied reign atop the RNC appear to be in the past. These days, there are major limitations to the level of control either the RNC or the DNC have over the two major political parties.
“If we’re going to blame losing on a national committee chairman, we’ve got problems. They don’t control that much,” said Sen. Tommy Tuberville (R-Ala.)
One reason congressional Republicans aren’t calling for McDaniel to be replaced is that they are uncertain about her challengers. There is no GOP equivalent to Pete Buttigieg, who achieved a level of national-politics wunderkind status by running for DNC chair in 2017.
Mike Lindell, one of McDaniel’s challengers who is colloquially called the “My Pillow Guy” in some GOP quarters, is a known commodity to several Senate Republicans, including Tuberville. But Republicans said they were not sure how serious Lindell is about running.
Harmeet Dhillon, the other challenger to McDaniel, faces a steep path to victory among the RNC’s 168 voting members. On top of that, Senate Republicans said in interviews that they were not particularly familiar with Dhillon or her style of politics.
By contrast, several Republican senators observed that turnout — a key RNC mandate — was high in 2022. And that’s why McDaniel's boosters are behind her for two more years.
"[McDaniel] knows the system. Our problems in 2022 were multiple. I don’t blame her over anything. Personally, I think continuity is good. We are in a good spot to take back the Senate in 2024, and in the presidential primaries she’s a competent, fair-minded person,” Graham said. “I have confidence in her.”
Even so, Graham is part of an apparent minority of Hill Republicans prepared to publicly stick their necks out for the RNC chair. It is particularly telling that McConnell declined to endorse her; he blanched at the national GOP's censures of Trump-antagonist former Reps. Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.) and Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) last year and was far more bearish than most Republicans on his party’s midterm election prospects.
McConnell's top deputy, and one of his potential successors, is joining him in the neutral zone.
“I’m not going to wade into that. They’ll figure it out,” Thune said. “I’m guessing whatever I say, if I support someone, it’d probably hurt them."
Marianne LeVine contributed to this report.