DES MOINES, Iowa — A cross-examination about how unpopular the president is probably wasn’t what Ronna Romney McDaniel had in mind when she decided to spend the first anniversary of Donald Trump’s election in Iowa.
But there the Republican National Committee chairwoman was Wednesday night, in a battleground state she believes is trending red — and people couldn’t stop talking about Tuesday night’s disaster in Virginia, a battleground state she believes is trending blue.
Ed Gillespie, one of McDaniel’s RNC predecessors, lost his bid for governor. Democrats made big, confidence-boosting gains in the state legislature. And now GOP leaders are trying hard not to panic as they brace for brutal midterm elections.
Even Sean Spicer, Trump’s former White House press secretary, couldn’t avoid the unpleasant topic while warming up the crowd for McDaniel at the Iowa Republican Party’s Reagan dinner.
“I now have to live through four more years of a Democratic governor because not enough people knocked on the doors, told their neighbors how important it was, told their neighbors about how our policies are different,” complained Spicer, a Virginia resident.
It fell to McDaniel to put the best spin on disappointment and uncertainty. So she downplayed Virginia as a state where the status quo — a Democrat will succeed a Democrat as governor in a state where Hillary Clinton beat Trump — prevailed. (New Jersey, another state that held a gubernatorial election Tuesday, flipped from Republican to Democrat, a widely predicted outcome that even McDaniel confesses did not take anyone in GOP World by surprise.)
Rather than dwell on these, McDaniel is emphasizing the party’s undefeated record in special congressional elections this year. Democrats would have loved to pick up a few of those seats, sure. But most of the victories were in not-so-swingy states, including one Tuesday in Utah.
More than half of the questions McDaniel fielded from a group of mostly local reporters before her keynote speech revolved around Virginia and the fraught state of the Republican Party.
Don’t Republicans have to win in blue states, too? “Well, we certainly did, because I was Michigan chair [last cycle] and we did win Michigan for the president for the first time since 1988,” McDaniel replied. “But hey, we won four special elections. And the media said, ‘Hey, they should have won those four special elections.’ And then last night, when two blue states went blue, they said, ‘Oh, my goodness, this is the narrative for the Democrats.’”
Is Donald Trump a drag in suburban areas? “I don’t think so,” McDaniel countered. “I don’t think you can put everything at the president’s feet when it comes to these races.”
Do Republicans have a problem running as the party of Trump? “There’s no problem running as the party of Donald Trump,” McDaniel said. “Look at our record fundraising for the RNC. We passed the $100 million mark for the first time in a post-presidential year, mainly on the support of small-dollar donors that are giving under $200. That’s the enthusiasm for the president.”
And on it went like that for several more minutes. There even was a question about Steve Bannon, the Breitbart executive and former Trump White House strategist who is threatening to recruit primary challengers against Republican senators next year. Bannon spent Wednesday night speaking at a GOP event in McDaniel’s Michigan.
“We’ll see what ends up happening and where he actually [runs] candidates,” McDaniel said. “I always think primaries are helpful because it gets your candidates ready and sharpened for the general, although I do carry concerns if we spend too many resources in primaries.”
About the only break McDaniel got from reporters were a couple of questions about Iowa’s prominence in presidential politics. (Let the record show that the RNC chairwoman said she doesn’t “see anything changing” with Iowa’s status as host of the nation’s first caucus.)
Later, in an interview with BuzzFeed News, McDaniel said she was “surprised by how focused they were on last night.”
Like Gillespie, McDaniel hails from the establishment branch of the Republican family tree. She spoke warmly Wednesday of traveling to Iowa to campaign for her uncle, Mitt, the two-time presidential candidate who has emerged as a Trump scold. But she has embraced Trump and Trumpism. Gillespie only embraced the latter in his race, creating a sort of hybrid candidacy and limiting the president’s direct involvement to a few last-minute tweets and robocalls.
Does McDaniel think Gillespie should have campaigned with Trump?
With off-year and special elections, she told BuzzFeed News, “you want your base to turn out. And our president turns out his base. There’s no candidate in our party right now that brings more enthusiasm to the base than President Trump, so I would always recommend that a candidate should bring the president on the road with them and rally that base to turn them out.”
Iowa GOP Chairman Jeff Kaufmann, who also faced a torrent of Virginia questions from reporters on hand, does not believe there’s a one-size-fits-all way for Republican candidates to handle Trump.
“Oh, I think it’s state by state,” Kaufmann replied when asked about Gillespie’s strategy.
By the time McDaniel took the stage, Virginia had been dissected from nearly every angle. So she did what she came to do.
“I want to wish you all a happy anniversary,” she began, before launching into a speech that was half-celebration of Trump, half-autobiography, to introduce herself. (McDaniel took over the party in January.)
Only briefly, and toward the end, did she allude to the headwinds coming in 2018 and warn against complacency.
“Wouldn’t it be a shame,” she asked, “to lose everything we gained in these midterms?”