Inside the ugly fight to become the next Republican chair

Dec 15, 2022, 4:15 PM | Updated: Dec 18, 2022, 1:03 pm
FILE - Republican National Committee Chair Ronna McDaniel speaks to a packed room at the opening of...

FILE - Republican National Committee Chair Ronna McDaniel speaks to a packed room at the opening of the RNC's new Hispanic Community Center in Suwanee, Ga., June 29, 2022. McDaniel, the former president's hand-picked choice back in 2017 and the niece of Utah Sen. Mitt Romney, is running to lead the RNC for a fourth term. (AP Photo/Ben Gray, File)

(AP Photo/Ben Gray, File)

NEW YORK (AP) — Struggling to unify after another disappointing election, the Republican National Committee is consumed by an increasingly nasty leadership fight as the GOP navigates its delicate relationship with former President Donald Trump.

With a vote for RNC chair not scheduled until late January, the public feud may get worse before it gets better.

“It’ll be ugly as hell for a while,” says longtime RNC member Ron Kaufman.

The family fight to lead the party has been largely overshadowed for national attention by the equally contentious struggle to become the new Republican House Speaker, with that election set for the first week in January. But both represent critical selections as the GOP works to overcome six years of electoral underperformance heading into another presidential election.

As the Republicans’ national political arm, the RNC will raise and spend hundreds of millions of dollars in building or rebuilding the party’s framework, in campaign messaging and in the year-long presidential nomination process that will begin in earnest before long.

Ronna McDaniel, Trump’s hand-picked choice to lead the committee and the niece of Utah Sen. Mitt Romney, is running for a fourth consecutive term. But the 49-year-old is facing a rising wave of discontent from Trump’s “MAGA” movement, even as the former president stays silent — at least, for now.

In an interview, McDaniel said she notified Trump of her intention to seek another term but did not explicitly ask for his support. She said she “didn’t think it would be appropriate to be asking for any endorsements” given that party rules require the RNC to remain neutral in the next presidential primary.

McDaniel demurred when asked whether she wanted Trump’s support.

“I think the most important support right now is the members,” she said. “These are leaders in the party, the grassroots leaders.”

California attorney Harmeet Dhillon has emerged as the MAGA favorite to challenge McDaniel, who secured commitments from more than 100 of the RNC’s 168 voting members earlier this month. Dhillon is working aggressively to peel away some of that support ahead of the formal vote at next month’s annual winter meeting in southern California.

Dhillon said she also notified Trump of her candidacy in a brief phone call shortly before she made her intentions public this month. She did not explicitly ask for his endorsement either, although she said the president did not discourage her from challenging McDaniel.

Dhillon, whose law firm earned more than $400,000 representing Trump and his political organizations in the 2022 midterms, said she would leave her law practice if elected chair. The 53-year-old California attorney, who was born in India, also vowed to remain independent in what is expected to be a crowded 2024 presidential primary contest.

Still, Dhillon defends Trump against those Republicans who blame him for the party’s disappointing performance in the November midterm elections. The GOP won a narrow House majority, but a host of Trump’s hand-picked candidates lost key elections for the Senate and governor.

“It’s not any one person’s fault. And I frankly think it’s a little too convenient to say it’s Donald Trump’s fault. Donald Trump hasn’t been the president for the last two years,” Dhillon said.

Instead of criticizing Trump, Dhillon railed against Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, a frequent Trump target, for not investing enough money in important Senate contests. Actually, McConnell and his allies spent tens of millions of dollars more than Trump’s political action committee in the midterms.

“You have Mitch McConnell, because he hates Trump, refusing to support candidates that President Trump endorsed, which I think is really appalling. And I blame him for the Senate losses,” Dhillon said.

Meanwhile, McDaniel is facing criticism from a growing chorus of Republicans largely outside the RNC’s 168 voting members who are eager to change course after three consecutive disappointing election seasons. Her critics include several high-profile Trump loyalists, including Fox News hosts and prominent MAGA figures on social media.

She has some unlikely supporters within the committee as well.

One frequent Trump critic, RNC member Bill Palatucci, said he would support Dhillon because McDaniel has essentially become Trump’s “tool” in recent years. He cited her decisions to stay silent on some of Trump’s more egregious behavior and to spend millions of dollars on his legal fees.

“There’s just gotta be a change,” Palatucci said, describing the committee commitments to McDaniel as “soft.” “RNC members are experienced pols who know how to look you right in the eye and say, ‘I love you,’ and then walk into the voting booth and slit your throat.”

At the same time, those RNC members are being flooded with emails from rank-and-file Republican voters and activists who support Dhillon’s candidacy. The deluge comes after Dhillon and her allies shared the entire committee’s personal emails on social media.

Steve Scheffler, an Iowa-based RNC member who supports McDaniel, said he’s receiving 50 to 70 emails each day from Republicans, many of them angry, weighing in on the leadership fight.

“Most of them are like, ‘Ronna’s gotta go,'” Scheffler said.

Arizona GOP Chair Kelli Ward said she’s received “a few thousand emails” in recent days.

“NOT ONE regular person not affiliated with the current RNC apparatus has urged me to retain Ronna Romney McDaniel as Chair,” Ward tweeted.

Trump remains a wildcard.

The former president has stayed out of the public fight, but key members of his team — including senior adviser Susie Wiles — have notified members in private conversations that Trump remains supportive of McDaniel’s reelection.

Trump’s allies note that his strategy could change at any time — especially as conservative media line up against McDaniel.

Wiles also defended McDaniel publicly on Friday following a report in conservative media, written by a Dhillon supporter and legal client, that the RNC had spent millions of dollars on private jets, limousines, donor mementos and floral arrangements under McDaniel’s watch.

Wiles noted that such RNC spending was sometimes to cover purchases that came at the discretion of the Trump White House.

“Someone leaving this info out of any criticism of RNC spending — and Ronna McDaniel, in particular — is not painting a complete picture,” Wiles told The Associated Press.

Indeed, RNC budget committee chair Glenn McCall described reports of excess spending as “a gross misrepresentation” in a letter to members. Costs associated with luxury car rentals and private jets, he wrote, were largely connected to Trump or other candidates.

McDaniel’s supporters are eager to highlight her success in fundraising, arguably the GOP chair’s most important responsibility. She has raised more than $1.5 billion during her tenure, according to McCall.

Meanwhile, Dhillon is ratcheting up her attacks against McDaniel.

She raised questions about McDaniel’s management of RNC funds, accused her of offering members key positions in exchange for their support and suggested the chair was behind an anonymous email smear campaign.

But more than anything, Dhillon says she’s running because she wants the party to win again: “I’m tired of losing.”

For her part, McDaniel warns that such intense divisions within her party could do serious damage.

“The race I’m running is about unity,” she said. “If we continue to fight and be so hateful to each other to the point where Republicans won’t vote for other Republicans, we’re giving the Democrats what they want.”

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Inside the ugly fight to become the next Republican chair