Keeping it All in the Family
September 18, 2015
MACKINAC ISLAND –Ronna Romney McDaniel is preparing to step onto the huge theatre stage at the Grand Hotel before 2,000 attendees of the Michigan 31st Biennial GOP Leadership Conference in a role she was destined for.
McDaniel, chairman of the Michigan GOP since January, has been around politics since before she could walk. She’ll be the ringleader of the gathering of local and national GOP leaders at the event held on Mackinac Island Sept 18-20.
To understand how deeply rooted politics is embedded in her DNA, you almost need an organizational chart to keep track of the high profile local and national campaigns her family has been involved with.
She’s the niece of former Mass. Gov. Mitt Romney and granddaughter of the late Michigan Gov. George Romney.
McDaniel is also the daughter of the former U.S. Senate candidate and conservative radio show host Ronna Romney, and former Michigan attorney general candidate and lawyer G. Scott Romney (Mitt’s older brother).
Politics was and continues to be a family affair.
McDaniel has been immersed in preparing for the GOP conference since taking over as chair. This year’s event talks about statewide politics but also has added significance as it is viewed as the unofficial kickoff of the 2016 presidential campaign in Michigan.
Six of 2016 GOP candidates – Gov. Jeb Bush, Gov. Scott Walker, Gov. John Kasich, Carly Fiorina, Sen. Ted Cruz, and Sen. Rand Paul –will give speeches at the conference.
The high profile gathering is a long way from her earliest memories of politics, when she and her siblings loaded up in her mom’s car as “Big Ronna” –as she is known inside the family– took them along as she helped Dick Headlee run for governor in 1984.
McDaniel’s first political job was serving as a driver for Ronna Romney during her U.S. Senate run in 1994.
In talking with McDaniel, the conversation often involves family.
She talked with her parents, former Michigan Republican Chair and Ambassador to Slovakia Ron Weiser, John Rakolta, and her husband before deciding to go for the job.
She was selected by her GOP peers in a decisive victory.
McDaniel, who moved back to Michigan with her husband in 2007, has been active in Michigan GOP party politics. She served as chair of the Women for Mitt effort in 2012.
“Ronna is about as high energy and high powered as they come,” Mitt Romney told me. “ Maybe she inherited her grandfather’s zeal for great causes. Like him, Ronna defies odds and breaks stereotypes.”
“I first met Ronna on the trail in 2012,” added Reince Priebus, chairman of the Republican National Committee. “She was a great surrogate and willing to do everything asked of her for the betterment of the party.”
Bobby Schostak, the former Michigan GOP chair who left earlier this year and formed Templar Baker Group, said, “She’s grown up in politics. She has been a tremendous grass roots activist. She cares about people, their opinions and values relationships from across the board.”
Weiser knew McDaniel had the right stuff when he first met her.
“She’s hard working and very independent. She looks to others for input but then makes her own decisions,” Weiser said. “She is going to be a strong leader.”
Raised in the Mormon faith as is most in her family, she describes herself as a conservative.
Others see it a bit differently.
“She’s clearly GOP establishment,” said Mark Brewer, former chair of the Michigan Democratic Party who now works as a lawyer at Goodman Acker.
“The chairman doesn’t call the shots — in either party,” said Brewer who held the party chair job for 18 years. “But in that party, you answer to the State Chamber (of Commerce), Business Leaders for Michigan, and (businessman) Dick DeVos.”
That trait of bringing people into the conversation was mentioned more than a few times.
“I’ve never heard anyone speak ill of her,” said Brandon Dillon, the Grand Rapids legislator who took over as chair of the Michigan Democratic Party in July. He has yet to meet her.
“She’s going to have a challenge balancing the different wings of the party –the tea party element vs. the traditional conservatives and business faction,” added Lon Johnson, who was the Michigan Democratic Chair until leaving to run for Congress to try and unseat U.S. Rep Dan Benishek.
That race became far more interesting with the surprising news that Benishek decided against running for re-election in 2016.
It throws the race for the northern Michigan seat wide open. It is considered Michigan’s most competitive congressional district and threatens to turn what would have been a likely Republican victory up in the air.
At the same time, the GOP will lose another experienced Republican member of Congress, U.S. Rep. Candice Miller of Harrison Township, who announced she would not seek re-election.
“Congressman Benishek did a great job in Michigan’s 1st Congressional District. I am so appreciative of his hard work for all of northern Michigan, and specifically with his work with veterans,” she said.
“I am confident that the Republican leaders we have in northern Michigan, whoever decides to run, will keep that seat in the GOP column.
“The Democrat running there, Lon Johnson, is a tourist who doesn’t know the residents or the district,” she said.
Of Miller, she said: “We are sad to see Congresswoman Miller go, she has been a tremendous leader for her district and for all of Michigan. There will be a great field of Republicans in that district as well and while we will not take it for granted, I am confident that we will have a Republican representative from the 10th District.”
Currently, Republicans hold nine of Michigan’s 14 congressional seats, with Democrats holding the other five as well as both U.S. Senate seats.
Everyone agrees Michigan will also be pivotal in the 2016 presidential race.
The state—which has a Republican governor and GOP controlled state legislature– has voted Democratic in every recent presidential contest with George H.W. Bush being the last Republican to carry Michigan in 1988.
McDaniel aims to change that.
“We will elect a Republican president because people in Michigan and elsewhere are sick of the failed Obama/Biden/Clinton policies,” she said. “Michigan is a tremendous example of what Republican leadership can do. Michigan is the Comeback State, and with Republican leadership, we can take back our nation, too.”
Those who have held the party chair job say it is grueling with endless hours rallying candidates and raising money.
The McDaniels are juggling as they deal with two careers and two children, Abigail, 12, and Nash, 10. Patrick McDaniel is president of the Hylant Group’s Detroit office, an insurance company.
“My husband and I are partners in this,” McDaniel said. “We knew the demands of this job. We pitch in with the kids as much as possible. Luckily we have family nearby and also have baby sitters.”
As GOP chair, McDaniel has her work cut out for her.
“I would say her biggest challenge may be fundraising – that’s always a challenge for a party chairman, even the best ones, and she follows two great fundraisers – Ron Weiser and Bobby Schostak,” said Bill Ballenger, longtime observer of Lansing politics.
Gov. Rick Snyder was an early champion of McDaniel’s candidacy for the Michigan GOP Chair.
“Ronna’s the right person to be a leader in this state,” Snyder said. “She is concerned about people and the state. She has that relentless positive action approach.”
Born This Way
Ronna and G. Scott Romney were living in Austin, Texas when ”Little Ronna” was born. She was the third of their five children.
“She just looked like a Ronna,” said her mom, who named her.
The family moved to Michigan when she was five. Her parents later divorced and married others.
McDaniel remains close with her mom. They talk every day by phone. Romney splits her time between Michigan and Florida and lives less than a mile from McDaniel.
“She’s so much better than I was,” said Ronna Romney. “She stands on the shoulders of so many. It’s a different era for women in politics.”
McDaniel grew up living next door to George and Lenore Romney , the patriarch and matriarch of the family, in Oakland County.
“Lenore taught me how to read,” said McDaniel of her grandmother, who ran for U.S. Senate in 1970.
McDaniel was absorbed by politics and talk of it at her grandparents’ house during those Sunday family dinners (both are deceased).
Being surrounded by strong, politically active women, McDaniel is hoping to entice more females into running for office and getting engaged in the process.
“I think a lot of women live their lives in stages, we have our kids, then find new chapters,” she said.
Sarah Anderson, communications director of the Michigan Republican Party, just came back to work for the GOP inspired by McDaniel’s mission.
Anderson quit to be a stay-at-home mom after her daughter, Emma was born in 2007. She also has two other children.
“We want to recruit more women into the GOP, to show them that compassion, principled leadership, and family values are at the core of what we do and what we believe,” she said. “I couldn’t ask for a better messenger for that than Ronna. “
Surrounded by so many politicos , when I asked McDaniel who has influenced her the most, she responded, “My grandpa Romney and my mom.”
It’s been their focus on family that has helped ease the heartache that comes with not winning hard fought elections.
“Even if you don’t win, you still win with family,” she said.
Though she would have loved to see Mitt Romney as president, his decision not to run in 2016 made her life as party chair simpler.
“I will be neutral in this race,” she said. “It will be nice not having a family member on the ballot for the first time in eight years.”
Coming from a family synonymous with running for elected office, one has to wonder if McDaniel has thought about it .
She doesn’t want to talk about it, saying her focus is the job ahead including making sure this statewide gathering is a success.
“I don’t know what the future holds for her,” added Ronna Romney. “But we’d be lucky if someone like her stayed in politics. I think maybe she is the face that the party needs right now.”