The fight reflects the remarkable crossroads the party is now at: One of the two main candidates to lead it is comfortable inviting outspoken Trump critics into its ranks.
It also underscores the mad race that is taking place between the two candidates to shore up support before committee members meet in California next week. The contest has turned some committee members into strange bedfellows, pushed the RNC’s private feuds into the public, and even divided a couple of billionaire GOP donors, Richard and Elizabeth Uihlein, who are backing Dhillon and McDanielrespectively.
“There are anti-Trump people who support Ronna, and anti-Trump people who support Harmeet,” said Jonathan Barnett, the Arkansas committee member who supports Dhillon, describing the factions on each side as “all on the map. ”
“It’s the strangest thing I’ve ever seen in my life,” he said.
McDaniel has not left the field to Dhillon alone. She herself has made recent appeals to the pro-Donald Trump base, culminating in an appearance Friday on Steve Bannon’s “War Room” talk show. Her team has insisted that she has the necessary votes for a fourth term.
But Dhillon, whose law firm served as Trump’s attorney for his dealings with the House Jan. 6 Committee, was hoping to upend what his team believes are McDaniel’s “soft” votes. To do so, they have recently reached out to top Republican leaders not named Trump, some of whom are considering their own bids for the White House in 2024.
Dhillon recently spoke with former UN ambassador Nikki Haley, according to a person familiar with the conversation, who said Dhillon “reiterated that he believes the role of the NCR chair should remain neutral in any primary.” A spokesman for Haley had no comment.
New Jersey committee member Bill Palatucci, a Trump skeptic, praised Dhillon’s coalition of support. He said Dhillon informed him that he was “talking to leaders across the country” as part of his campaign for the presidency. “She mentioned Newt Gingrich, Mike Pompeo and others,” he added. “I wouldn’t be surprised if that included Chris Christie.”
Palatucci previously served as a close adviser to Christie, the former New Jersey governor and Republican presidential candidate who has been outspoken against Trump.
Despite Dhillon’s reach, none of those figures have endorsed the presidential race.
But some important voices and commentators have taken sides. Erick Erickson, a conservative commentator who had initially called for McDaniel’s removal, reversed course this week, saying senior Republican officials she had spoken with believed she should stay in office. in a blog postErickson noted that, with the exception of South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem, the 2024 presidential hopefuls aren’t saying McDaniel should go.
“There does not seem to be, even among Trump’s competitors, a belief that Ronna McDaniel would steer the party in a partisan direction for the former president,” Erickson wrote.
McDaniel’s camp did not directly comment on whether he has been in contact with Republican presidential hopefuls, though he vowed to remain neutral in the upcoming process despite his close ties to Trump.
“The president has a close relationship with the former president and many party leaders,” said Emma Vaughn, a spokeswoman for McDaniel’s re-election campaign. “Her goal of hers will be to unite everyone behind the eventual nominee to put a Republican in the White House, and she is best suited to do that.”
McDaniel’s allies have touted his ability to unite competing factions within the party, his fundraising prowess and initiatives that reached new constituencies of voters.
“There have been times particularly during former President Trump’s tenure when she was everything between a unified party and chaos. And she’s shown her ability to navigate rough water, and we’ve got choppy waters ahead of her, so I think it’s important to stay on that course,” said John Hammond, a member of the Indiana national committee who supports McDaniel. “She would be a constant lodestar.”
While Dhillon’s supporters have criticized McDaniel’s decisions on spending and strategy, McDaniel’s allies say Dhillon’s harsh rhetoric about his own party, such as describing the current Republican leadership in Congress as “old,” shows that he could not unite the Republicans.
The election of the RNC chair, along with the election of other key committee positions, is done by secret ballot. And despite the public maneuvering, it’s unclear exactly how many votes Dhillon or McDaniel have racked up. A majority of the 168 members is required to win, and McDaniel’s supporters say she is safely in the lead.
McDaniel’s team claims it has the support of more than 100 RNC members, according to a letter of endorsement released in December before Dhillon entered the race. Dhillon’s allies say he has commitments of about 60 members, though an official website for his campaign he has the support of 29 members.
Palatucci confirmed to POLITICO on Friday that he is backing Dhillon in the race, following weeks of criticism of McDaniel. He acknowledged that there are a small number of members who have been privately angry with Trump and have expressed concern about McDaniel’s alliance with the former president.
“It’s not a huge contingent, but it’s there,” Palatucci said of RNC members who, behind closed doors, say they want the party to move away from Trump.
Palatucci believes that other arguments against McDaniel are more convincing to most RNC members, including the “lack of transparency” in the way the RNC has operated in recent years.
Barnett insisted that McDaniel “owes his entire career” to Trump for choosing her to chair the RNC, acknowledging that that particular fact doesn’t seem to be driving most of the anti-McDaniel sentiment. Rather, the president’s detractors have more frequently pointed to her financial and strategic decisions on the committee, rather than her alignment with Trump.
He’s the one who put it there. You’d think that argument would carry weight on one side or the other,” Barnett said.
But despite the skeptics, McDaniel has continued to maintain support from all corners of the party as he strives to appeal to the GOP activist class. He will have to continue navigating between those factions next week at the NCR winter meeting in Dana Point, California, where the vote will take place.
“I think there is widespread support for Ronna and one of the reasons is that she has been able to swing between all the different factions of the Republican Party and has been able to for over 6 years. If she thinks the last 6 years were rough and choppy, wait and see what lies ahead,” Hammond said.