McDaniel is facing a challenge from Harmeet Dhillon, a California lawyer who has represented Trump and the unsuccessful Arizona gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake, seizing on grass-roots furor demanding new leadership after a string of electoral failures. McDaniel has 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.
Interviews with RNC members gathered at a luxury resort here suggested that Dhillon’s appearances on conservative media and her alliance with right-wing influencers failed to sway, and in some cases even backfired with many of the 168 committee members whose votes will decide the outcome. Still, a nod of support Thursday morning from potential presidential candidate Ron DeSantis underscored the fluidity of the race, with a person close to Dhillon’s campaign saying she picked up 11 votes since the Florida governor’s endorsement.
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 is supporting 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.”
Win or lose, Dhillon made the race competitive — a notable feat against an incumbent — by tapping into real anger among party activists clamoring for some accountability after Republicans underperformed in the 2022 midterms. Dhillon’s supporters have dispatched thousands of emails and phone calls to pressure members to turn away from McDaniel.
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“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 Reynold, a committee member from Alabama who’s supporting 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.”
House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) recently survived similar challenges to what McDaniel is enduring. The race for RNC chair, though, did not fit neatly into the familiar MAGA vs. GOP establishment template — pivoting more heavily around the dilemma of sticking with familiar leadership or going a different path after a string of losses at the ballot box.
To win a majority and peel off some of the 100 members who have 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 is supporting 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.
Two of Trump’s top campaigners, 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.”
McDaniel has not spoken publicly at the RNC meeting but her team has been counting votes behind the scenes all week and expressed confidence Thursday.
For Dhillon, trying to run around McDaniel on both flanks at the same time has proved a tough play to manage. She offered a role in the RNC to Mike Lindell, the MyPillow CEO and election denier who mounted his own long-shot bid for chairman. 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 to hold events with Lake and other surrogates to raise money for their state parties if they voted for Dhillon.
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 has not appeared to translate into swaying votes on the committee. She spent comparatively less time calling and consulting with members herself. She has further offended some members with critiques of the RNC’s spending that could sound like attacks on the very members whose votes she needs to win.
Much of the campaign has 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.”
Dhillon’s supporters urged their colleagues to heed the input of the thousands of Republicans who emailed and called, arguing they were the people the members were supposed to represent. But the pressure has backfired on 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 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. Wren appeared on Dhillon’s behalf, since Dhillon had a scheduling conflict with a committee meeting. McDaniel did not wait.
Fredericks, in an interview later at the Waldorf Astoria hotel where the RNC meeting is being held, criticized the event’s exclusiveness, 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. “This whole atmosphere is representative of the consultant corruption circle of cash that goes on in the RNC.”
Republican Party of Texas Chairman Matt Rinaldi, who’s supporting Dhillon, said 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.
“All of us supporting Harmeet, we’re not going away,” said Jonathan Barnett, a committee member from Arkansas. “Some of these people are going to probably lose their job. Some of these members either don’t believe it or … don’t care.”
Dawsey reported from Washington.