The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Bitter RNC chair race roiled by questions of Trump loyalty

The current chairwoman, Ronna McDaniel, argues she is best positioned to prevent Donald Trump from forming a third party if he fails to win the 2024 nomination

Ronna McDaniel, chairwoman of the Republican National Committee, speaks at an event for Pennsylvania GOP Senate nominee Mehmet Oz in Malvern, Pa., on Oct. 15. (Rachel Wisniewski for The Washington Post)

Republican Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel, facing a surprisingly aggressive challenge to her leadership, has argued in recent weeks that she is best positioned to prevent former president Donald Trump from forming a third party if he fails to win the 2024 GOP presidential nomination next year, according to multiple people involved in the conversations.

She made the comments as she campaigned privately among the 168 voting members of the Republican National Committee to win reelection to another two-year term next week at a party meeting in California, according to the people, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe the private exchanges. A person close to McDaniel said she has spoken about the need to make sure all the likely candidates for president, including detractors of Trump, support the eventual nominee.

McDaniel has been challenged in her bid for a fourth term as party chair by a nascent and surprising coalition that spans both Trump opponents, who blame McDaniel for being too close to the former president, and some of Trump’s biggest public supporters, like Arizona GOP Chairwoman Kelli Ward, who are calling for reform of the organization.

They have argued that Harmeet Dhillon — a Republican lawyer whose firm has represented Trump and the RNC and who helped win damages from adult-film actress Stormy Daniels on Trump’s behalf — will be better positioned to steer the party. They also criticize McDaniel for Republican election disappointments in the three election cycles that have taken place since she became chair.

“The reality is that every time Donald Trump says ‘JUMP,’ Ronna asks ‘HOW HIGH,’” reads an email sent by Tennessee Committeeman Oscar Brock to about two dozen voting members Thursday. Brock criticized McDaniel in the email for having hired current and former Trump advisers to work for the party, and for allowing the RNC to play a role in Trump’s efforts to undermine the 2020 election of President Biden.

Brock wrote that he now wants the party to “move on” from Trump. “In order to do that we must also move on from Ronna McDaniel,” he wrote.

Allies of McDaniel remain confident that they will prevail at the meeting next week, when MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell, an avowed denier of the 2020 election result, will also be on the ballot. McDaniel’s team believes she has more than 100 committed voters, well more than a majority of the committee needed to win.

“Republicans are a big tent party and we need to be unified if we are going to win in 2024,” McDaniel said in a statement Thursday. “It is in that spirit that I have run this campaign, and it is why I am humbled to have earned the trust and support of so many RNC members.”

Dhillon’s advisers list only 28 RNC voter endorsements on their campaign website, along with endorsements from Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) and conservative media personalities such as Glenn Beck, Tucker Carlson, Mark Levin and Ben Shapiro. Turning Point USA founder Charlie Kirk has backed Dhillon, threatening to rally activists to seek the removal of RNC members who do not heed grass-roots demands.

Caroline Wren, an adviser to Dhillon, said that there was a large contingency of members who publicly support McDaniel out of fear of retaliation from her allies, but who will privately vote for Dhillon on a secret ballot. Many of the remaining votes Dhillon’s team is hoping to get come from Trump’s critics in the party.

“The job of the RNC chair is to unite Republicans, so I commend Ronna McDaniel on her ability to unite all factions of the Republican Party against her candidacy,” Wren said.

McDaniel and her allies, meanwhile, have argued that they are best able to maintain party unity, both because of her record in building the party over the past six years and because of her relationship with Trump. McDaniel has blamed Dhillon for increasing divisions in the party.

“I am sick of the scapegoating — ‘This person didn’t do enough, and I am going to attack them,’” McDaniel said this month on “Ruthless,” a podcast run by Republican political consultants. “I am hearing that come towards me, and I think it is really unfounded and unfair, especially from someone on the committee in a leadership role who is now throwing darts, when she could have asked really productive questions throughout and she didn’t.”

McDaniel has said she will run a completely neutral primary season, and has already launched a process to guide the presidential nominating debates. Since Trump declared his candidacy, the national party has stopped paying legal bills for the former president in an investigation by New York Attorney General Letitia James, a probe that Republican leaders have described as political.

Dhillon, a member of the RNC from California, founded a law firm that represented Trump during the House investigation into the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol and during the legal conflict with Daniels, who had accused Trump of an extramarital affair. Dhillon called the Jan. 6 congressional investigation “a purely political witch hunt.”

“It was an honor for my team to represent President Trump,” Dhillon wrote after the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit ordered Daniels to pay Trump’s legal fees. Dhillon’s firm has also worked for the RNC, representing party officials before the Jan. 6 committee and helping to sue Google over its handling of party fundraising emails.

“I have publicly and repeatedly pledged that as RNC chair, I will ensure that the RNC is neutral both in appearance and substance during the primary,” Dhillon said in a statement to The Washington Post.

Bill Palatucci, a committeeman from New Jersey, said he will not vote to make McDaniel chair again because of her work with Trump over the last few years and her refusal to condemn the former president for criticizing other Republican lawmakers. While he had not agreed to vote for Dhillon, he said she had told him that her work for Trump was in the context of legal representation, not personal allegiance.

He said he suspected McDaniel is on weaker ground than she has acknowledged with the voting members of the party.

“Supporters of hers keep telling me she has this all in hand,” Palatucci said of McDaniel. “She is working pretty hard if she has this all in hand.”

Other critics of Trump and McDaniel within the party have expressed skepticism that Dhillon will be able to chart a new direction or attract enough votes, in part because of her decision to work with people like Kirk, Ward and Wren, who recently advised Kari Lake, a failed candidate for Arizona governor, and helped organize the public rally on the national mall on Jan. 6, 2021.

“Harmeet surrounded herself with the wrong people,” said another voting member, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to talk frankly. “Harmeet’s argument is that Ronna is a loser and that she has a lot of consultants and others getting rich, and the RNC is totally ineffective. Ronna’s argument is that Harmeet would put people in charge of the Republican Party who are insane.”

McDaniel has also received support from conservative radio host Erick Erickson, who said this week that after initially opposing McDaniel he had been persuaded by other elected Republican officials to support her.

“They said, ‘Actually, you kind of want to keep her there. Because, she’s one of the very few people who’s been able to bridge the gap between people who don’t like Trump and people who do like Trump,’” Erickson said.

The final outcome is unlikely to be clear until Republicans gather in Dana Point, Calif., for a meeting from Jan. 25 to 27.

“This is not like running for Congress. This is like running for class president. Everybody knows everybody,” said Ron Kaufman, a longtime committee member from Massachusetts and current party treasurer. He is supporting McDaniel and expects her to win.

“The RNC election meetings are like a convention,” Kaufman said. “Once a convention starts, rumors make a difference and things that are said make a difference.”

Loading...