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Ronna McDaniel quells revolt to win reelection as chair of fractured RNC

The RNC voted to stick with McDaniel amid demands for accountability for the party’s string of electoral failures

Republican National Committee chairman Ronna McDaniel speaks during a “Get Out to Vote” rally on Oct. 18 in Tampa. (Chris O'meara/AP)
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DANA POINT, Calif. — The Republican National Committee on Friday voted to reelect Ronna McDaniel to a fourth two-year term as its chair, opting not to punish her for the GOP’s recent string of electoral defeats, in a contested race that exposed fissures in the party.

McDaniel fended off a challenge from Harmeet Dhillon, a California lawyer who has represented former president Donald Trump and the unsuccessful Arizona gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake, seizing on grass-roots furor demanding new leadership. McDaniel positioned herself as a steady hand and honest broker who can hold together the party’s factions and continue building out the RNC’s financial and field resources. She prevailed on the first ballot, 111-51. After her win, McDaniel told Fox News this will be her final term. “It’s done,” she said.

McDaniel argued that the RNC did its job in the midterms by providing the infrastructure for turning out voters. She acknowledged that the party struggled with its nominees — a problem that many Republicans have attributed to Trump’s influence. But McDaniel didn’t address the former president — who first elevated her to the job after he was elected president — in her remarks on Friday morning.

“The RNC, we don’t get to pick the candidates, the voters do,” McDaniel said. “We don’t get to call the plays, we don’t get to say what the campaigns run on. But we do provide resources and we build a critical infrastructure to help candidates win.” She added that Republicans won the popular vote by 4 million, equivalent to 297 electoral college votes, and made inroads with minority voters.

McDaniel’s victory offered few immediate answers to the questions dogging the Republican Party as it grapples with Trump’s third White House run, a disappointing midterm election and a potentially unwieldy presidential primary field. In some ways, the race reaffirmed the party’s complicated relationship with the former president, with both leading candidates having clear ties to him, but also at times seeking some distance.

Yet it was clear that party insiders signaled they were not in the mood to tackle those challenges by blowing things up and starting over.

The hard-fought race also brought into focus some real vulnerabilities for McDaniel that Dhillon tried to capitalize on in her bid. Dhillon made the race competitive — a notable feat against an incumbent who had never faced a serious challenge in her three previous elections — by tapping into real anger among party activists clamoring for some accountability after Republicans underperformed in the 2022 elections. Dhillon’s supporters dispatched thousands of emails and phone calls to pressure the RNC’s 168 members to turn away from McDaniel.

“We as 168 feel as though we know more about what the party needs going forward than the rank-and-file voter back home,” said Paul Reynolds, a committee member from Alabama who supported Dhillon. “Whatever we are doing now isn’t working, and it needs to be corrected because, what is a statement? Insanity is doing things the same way over and over and expecting different results. It’s not working.”

Dhillon’s tactics, though, failed to sway, and sometimes backfired with, many of the members whose votes decided the outcome. A late nod of support Thursday morning from Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a potential presidential candidate, heartened Dhillon allies but fell short of changing the momentum.

Everything you need to know about the heated RNC chair election

“Only 168 people can vote,” said Benjamin Proto, a committee member from Connecticut who backed McDaniel. “I don’t care what Tucker Carlson thinks the next chairman should do, or what Charlie Kirk does,” he said, referring to the Fox News host and Turning Point USA founder, respectively. “So I think that was a mistake on Harmeet’s part. It was just a strategic error.”

Emphasizing the relationship-based focus of the content, Kansas committee member Kim Borchers formally nominated McDaniel by saying the vote came down to two questions: “Can I trust you? Can I rely on you?”

Bitter RNC chair race roiled by questions of Trump loyalty

House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) recently survived challenges similar to the one launched against McDaniel. The race for RNC chair, though, did not fit neatly into the familiar MAGA vs. GOP establishment template. To win a majority and peel off some of the 100 members who publicly committed to support McDaniel, Dhillon worked to appeal both to die-hard Trump supporters and to Trump skeptics who faulted McDaniel for being too accommodating toward the former president.

“She’s just a stronger voice for change, and I think the RNC needs change,” said Bill Palatucci, a committee member from New Jersey who supported Dhillon and is the RNC’s most vocal Trump critic. “I’m readily acknowledging that there is a tension there, but, you know, these are choices you’ve got to make.”

Trump did not weigh in on the chair contest, though he did make endorsements for other positions. RNC staff and Trump aides discussed an endorsement for McDaniel but the staff ultimately decided it would not be the best course to help McDaniel win more votes, according to people familiar with the discussions, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe private deliberations. McDaniel’s nomination was seconded by David Bossie, a Maryland committee member and top aide to Trump’s 2016 campaign.

Two of Trump’s current top campaign advisers, Susie Wiles and Chris LaCivita, attended the event to meet with RNC members. The campaign denied a charge from Dhillon that they were there to whip votes for McDaniel. “We work for the only GOP-announced candidate for president, Donald Trump,” LaCivita said. “Why wouldn’t we be where the party leadership is? Our focus is that campaign.”

In the race for co-chair, the party’s second-ranking position, Trump-endorsed Michael Whatley of North Carolina withdrew from a three-way contest after finishing last on the second ballot. South Carolina chair Drew McKissick prevailed in the third round.

In contrast to Dhillon’s media-driven campaign, McDaniel did not speak publicly at the RNC meeting until Friday morning, while her team counted votes and worked members behind the scenes all week.

After the midterms, some members of the RNC grew angry at McDaniel’s first call with members, when she gave a saccharin-sweet analysis of the midterm results. But her team soon focused on members, with a whip team meeting regularly and organizing a letter to show support — a bid designed to keep others out of the race. They were more fearful, some people close to McDaniel said, of facing Lee Zeldin, a former congressman who ran unsuccessfully for governor of New York. Zeldin didn’t run for party chair but received one vote on Friday.

For Dhillon, trying to run around McDaniel on both flanks at the same time proved a tough play to manage. She offered a role to Mike Lindell, the MyPillow CEO and election denier who mounted his own long-shot bid for chairman. He finished with four votes.

“They need to start listening to the people, because they’re the ones that elect them,” Lindell told The Washington Post during the vote. “There’s got to be something that manifests out of this.”

Dhillon’s campaign was run by Caroline Wren, a fundraiser who helped organize the Jan. 6, 2021, rally that preceded the riot at the Capitol by a pro-Trump mob. Wren offered RNC members events with Lake and other surrogates to raise money for their state parties if they voted for Dhillon. In an incident on Thursday night, Wren accosted former Georgia lawmaker Vernon Jones, calling him a sellout for backing McDaniel and warning that the grass roots would never support him again, according to two people present. Wren denied using the word “sellout.”

At the same time that Dhillon played up her MAGA bona fides in broadcast appearances, she tried to assert her independence from either Trump or DeSantis, since the party chair is supposed to stay neutral in primaries.

“I have not sought the endorsement of any potential candidate for the United States presidency, including President Trump,” Dhillon said Thursday, before adding that she was in touch with him just the day before. “I think it’s very problematic for somebody to say that they’re neutral if they get an official endorsement.”

Dhillon’s success in booking television airtime and generating activist emails and phone calls did not translate into swaying votes on the committee. She spent comparatively less time calling and consulting with members herself. She further offended some members with critiques of the RNC’s spending that could sound like attacks on the very members whose votes she needed to win.

Much of the campaign played out over emails among the 168 members. In response to one message from Dhillon defending her own firm’s work for the RNC, Iowa GOP chairman Jeff Kaufmann replied that Dhillon was damaging the institution she was running to lead.

“You initially launched your campaign by going on national television to accuse your fellow RNC members of acting out of self-interest rather than what we believe is best for our party and country,” Kaufmann wrote in the email, obtained by The Washington Post. “I wanted to believe you were sincere when you later emailed us in December saying you regretted your comments and wanted to apologize. What we’ve instead seen, however, is you doubling down and attacking our motives and integrity.”

Several people involved in the race said Dhillon’s team was more interested in attacking others and getting media attention — and that many of the members were turned off by their tactics. Some members, including Henry Barbour, a prominent member from Mississippi, privately told others he was so frustrated by the operatives around Dhillon that he could not vote for her.

Dhillon’s supporters urged their colleagues to heed the input of the thousands of Republicans who emailed and called, arguing they were the people that the members were supposed to represent. But the pressure alienated some members who viewed the form messages as spam rather than genuine expressions of support. Members also said many of the messages were rude or threatening.

“All of us got thousands of emails, all of them unwelcome. And many of them moronic, sad, pathetic,” one member supporting McDaniel said. “Some of them intelligent, some of them engaging, most of them robotic. Scissors, paste.”

In a closed-door debate for members only, Dhillon apologized for the messages, but in a tone that at least one person present heard as backhanded. The person said Dhillon tried to soften her image, focusing on her life story and history in politics, then calling for an audit of the RNC’s finances and vendors and expanding efforts on election integrity.

After Dhillon said that she’d done many media interviews and that complaints about her comments had been taken out of context, one woman rose to say she’d listened to several podcast interviews and Dhillon’s comments weren’t out of context, so what would she do to unite the party? Some in the room applauded before Dhillon could answer.

The only public debate among the candidates was held off-site, organized by talk radio host John Fredericks in a humbler hotel conference room packed with local Republicans. Lindell was the only candidate who attended.

Fredericks, in an interview later at the Waldorf Astoria hotel where the RNC meeting is being held, criticized the event’s exclusivity, which several RNC members supporting Dhillon also said was a bad look. “You can’t have a movement and then when you have your party election have it only for the elite and cut everybody out,” Fredericks said.

Republican Party of Texas Chairman Matt Rinaldi, who supported Dhillon, said before the vote that a McDaniel victory would be a slap in the face to rank-and-file Republicans. “You’re going to basically tell them that their voice doesn’t matter,” he said.

The days of meetings showed little sign of resolving the divisions in the party or articulating a clear direction for the future, other than persistent infighting and dissatisfaction. Wren said she would focus on fundraising for outside groups, arguing that Republicans rely too much on official party committees and should emulate the Democrats’ cluster of allied nonprofits.

“All of us supporting Harmeet, we’re not going away,” said Jonathan Barnett, a committee member from Arkansas.

Dawsey reported from Washington.