Romney McDaniel: One woman's rise to the top of Republican politics
Posted June 22
Updated August 9
When the elevator doors opened and I turned the corner toward the chairman's office at the Republican National Committee Headquarters, I looked at the wall and nearly laughed out loud.
I was going to interview the new female RNC chair, Ronna Romney McDaniel, and what greeted me was rows and rows of pictures of her predecessors. All but one were men.
"Yes, they are all guys. I'm very happy to add a feminine touch to this wall," Romney McDaniel later said to me with a grin as we stood next to that photo wall of men.
Romney McDaniel is only the second woman to chair the RNC in history and the first in a generation. She was picked by the Republican President she helped elect: Donald Trump.
As chair of the Michigan GOP, Romney McDaniel worked to deliver the key state for Trump -- the first time a Republican presidential candidate has won Michigan in almost 30 years.
"I went to his very first rally in March, I think, right after he'd announced his candidacy, and there were 3,000 people there. I've never seen that for a candidate during a primary. And obviously, my uncle ran for president," she said.
That uncle is Mitt Romney, the 2012 Republican nominee who lost Michigan to Barack Obama that year by nearly 10 points.
During the 2016 campaign, Romney repeatedly slammed Trump in the harshest of terms -- calling him "a phony" and "a fraud," not to mention a threat to the economic and national security of America.
"It was just a difference of opinion as to where the country needed to go," Romney McDaniel said, "but it didn't affect my relationship with my Uncle Mitt."
3 generations in politics
Politics runs so deep in the Romney blood that 2016 was likely not the first familial difference of opinion about a candidate.
After all, Mitt's father and Ronna's grandfather, George Romney, was also a governor who ran unsuccessfully for president.
"And my mom ran for Senate, and my dad had run for attorney general. And I thought, 'I've gotta go get into party politics so I can figure out how to win and get some of my family members across the finish line,'" she laughed.
Many women in politics say they had very few, if any, female role models. Romney McDaniel not only has her mother as a role model but also her grandmother, who ran for Senate in Michigan in 1970.
"For a period of time, my grandmother, Lenore Romney, and my mother, Ronna Romney, were the only two women in the Republican Party to ever secure the nomination for Senate. And they were leaders. They were pioneers in our party," she said proudly.
But that early exposure to politics initially turned her off.
"I'd seen the negative side of it at a young age. I was 19 when my mom ran for Senate, and it was a pretty tough race. And you walk away and you think, 'I don't know if I want to be part of that world,'" she remembered.
Despite her famous name and political pedigree, Romney McDaniel, 44, ended up in politics the way a lot of women around the country do. Something happens at a local level that they get passionate about, and they get involved. Her pivotal moment came when her kids lost their favorite teacher.
"Part of the reason I got involved was I saw a teacher get laid off at our school. And we were in a budget crisis in our state, and they couldn't decide if they could bring her back on because we hadn't passed a budget. And I thought, 'This is just ridiculous,'" she said.
Getting more women involved in the GOP
Romney McDaniel told me one of her main goals as RNC chair is to attract more women to the GOP. She hopes having a woman in charge will help.
"I think it signals that the Republican Party is a party for women. For a long time, we've been put kind of to the side, as if we're single-issue voters or we're just a special interest group," Romney McDaniel said. "We need to do a better job reaching out to women."
In presidential elections, Republican candidates have fallen behind with women nationally -- Mitt Romney lost women by 11 points to Barack Obama and John McCain lost women to Obama by 13 points. During the 2016 campaign, then-candidate Trump's treatment of women became a hot-button issue after vulgar comments surfaced on an old Access Hollywood tape. The President went on to lose among women nationally by 13 points to Hillary Clinton.
Romney McDaniel says that the need to bring more women in extends to all parts of the political process -- especially fundraising.
"I hate generalizing. But what I've seen, from what I've observed, fundraising's an issue for women candidates," she said, noting she sees female candidates struggle to ask for money and to find female donors.
"A lot of the major donors, and I don't know if it's on the Democrat side, are men. So we need to cultivate more women givers. Women are very comfortable giving to charities or things they believe in, but not as much political givers."
She says recruiting women for run for office is also harder than it should be.
It's a phenomenon that does not appear to be Republican or Democratic but, rather, female. Democratic women tell me they face the same challenges when talking to prospective female candidates for office. Many are reluctant to dive in, insisting they lack experience or fear losing.
"One candidate I was just talking with, she said to me, 'I've never run for something -- I didn't know I was gonna win.' And there is a risk component, especially as you get further up in running for Senate or governor. And you're giving years of your life to something, and you don't know if you're gonna come out with a victory," Romney McDaniel said.
Much like her Democratic counterparts, she is trying to change that dynamic.
"We need more women to realize they are 100% qualified for that position and that they should run. You know, if you're a mom of young kids, sometimes you're not gonna feel like that's the right time in your life to run for office. But I think they have a really valuable voice to add to the discussion," she said.
Parenting from afar
Romney McDaniel knows firsthand the challenges of balancing politics and parenting. She was elected RNC chair in January, which was the middle of the school year for her two children: Abigail, 14, and Nash, 12. Romney McDaniel and her husband, Pat, decided that it was best for their kids not to be disrupted, so she headed to Washington, DC, alone.
"It is tough. Well, first of all, I have the best husband in the world. It is a team sport for us. But he recognizes, my kids recognize that this is an opportunity to support our President," she said.
"I think [for] any working woman, it's not unique to me, balance is tough. It's hard to balance giving everything you need to your kids and then being successful at work. And we're always juggling, and we have two full-time jobs."
Like many women working in politics who have young children, Romney McDaniel relies heavily on her husband to take on responsibilities at home, which he sees no shame in -- just the opposite.
"It's given me a great opportunity to spend more time with the kids, and we're just -- we're thrilled for Ronna and the opportunity that she has, and she really is a role model for not just our kids but for others," said Pat McDaniel, who runs the Detroit office for the insurance company Hylant.
A big part of the RNC chair job is traveling around the country, largely to raise money. For Romney McDaniel, that means trying to figure out how to parent from afar.
Some of it is doing mom logistics -- like ordering groceries on Amazon Prime from her hotel room.
"I was at home this weekend and I'm like, 'We're low on paper towels and dish washing soap.' My husband was laughing. He's like, 'I got home last night and I saw these packages on the door and I thought, oh, thank you. Thank you, Ronna, that you realized we needed these things.'"
She also tries to do homework with her kids remotely.
"My son's reading Mr. Lemoncello's Library, so I'm reading it along with him out here so that we call and I can make sure he's actually doing his reading," she said.
I got to meet Abigail and Nash when they visited D.C. during their spring break, and it was clear they are remarkably understanding about their mother's long-distance job.
"Yeah it's difficult and we miss her, but she's doing something that's really extraordinary, so I mean, I understand," Abigail told me.
And -- who knows? -- 14-year-old Abigail could end up as the fourth generation of women in her family to get into politics. She is clearly soaking it in.
"You get to do these once-in-a-lifetime opportunities that are just, not a lot of other kids get to do, and that's really amazing, and I'm really proud of her for all she's doing," Abigail told me.
Romney McDaniel joked that like most parents of teenagers, she is just trying stay cool for her kids.
"You're swag, Mom," Nash told her, which Romney McDaniel joked made her so happy she was going to embroider it on a pillow.
A raw moment
The toll of being away from her kids was on display earlier this month at a CNN event to launch this series, Badass Women of Washington. I asked each of the five women who attended whether they thought women really could have it all.
Romney McDaniel happened to have one of those extremely tough working mother days. One of her children had pink eye, and she felt guilty not being there.
"I don't know if you can have it all," she answered honestly, as she began to cry.
"I don't want to cry. It's hard to have it all," she continued, wiping away tears. "But we have to do it because it's women like us who have young kids who don't step up. If we don't take these leadership roles, our voices won't be heard."
Every mother on that panel and in the audience could relate. We have all been there.