early and often

The Ugly, Trumpy Fight for the RNC Chairmanship

RNC Chairman candidate Harmeet Dhillon. Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images

If you think of Donald Trump as an outdated and repudiated figure who will be roadkill once Ron DeSantis launches his 2024 presidential campaign, you might want to take a look at the heated battle to determine the GOP’s national chairman in late January. It’s a fight between Trump’s handpicked incumbent Ronna McDaniel and a challenger even closer to the 45th president, California attorney Harmeet Dhillon. Trump himself is neutral so far in this contest, but he has reason to smile on both candidates as his political children.

To be sure, party chairmanships are glittering fool’s gold for political junkies — mostly symbolic positions involving more following than leading. But that doesn’t mean aspirants won’t fight like crazy for the honor of taking orders from the powers that be. The limited coverage of this race among the chattering classes has mostly centered on an unserious potential candidate, MyPillow dude Mike Lindell, a champion of the art of gaining massive attention for cutting capers on the far fringes of disreputable MAGA causes. The Associated Press’s overview of the RNC contest by Steve Peoples doesn’t even mention Lindell. But the McDaniel-Dhillon race has plenty of nasty Trumpian dynamics. A lot of what’s driving Dhillon’s uphill challenge to the incumbent is the search for a 2022 scapegoat other than the ex-president.

McDaniel is indeed a convenient target. Republicans lost the House, the Senate, the White House and some key governorships during her first three years as chair. And nobody’s going to unduly celebrate the anemic midterm performance that will likely make Kevin McCarthy the weakest Speaker in living memory. But she’s managed to hold the party more or less together despite its manifold divisions. And clearly the fiercer quadrants of MAGA-land are ready to take her down for not defending Trump against the widespread blame he’s getting for foisting weak 2022 candidates on the party and helping Democrats make it a “choice” election instead of a straight referendum on an unpopular Joe Biden and the country’s various discontents, as Peoples observes:

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.

The attacks aren’t just about McDaniel’s institutional responsibility for a disappointing midterm, either:

On Thursday, McDaniel’s team scrambled to explain reports 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.

Team McDaniel has some ammunition with which to return fire, as CNN reports:

Federal election data shows that Dhillon’s eponymous law firm took in more than $440,000 from two Trump-aligned groups last cycle, though Dhillon has told members she would cut ties with Trump if elected chairwoman in order to comply with the RNC’s commitment to remain neutral in the 2024 presidential primary. During the same period, her law firm received nearly $900,000 from the RNC, federal election data shows.

CNN also quotes an RNC member as nervously saying: “I didn’t think things could get worse after the [Georgia] runoff, but now we’ve got a bare-knuckle fight for RNC chair and it’s going to leave a sour taste in a lot of people’s mouths right as we’re starting another critical cycle.”

McDaniel managed to secure a letter of support from 101 of the RNC’s 160 members last month as she was working (successfully) to head off a challenge from ex-congressman and New York gubernatorial nominee Lee Zeldin. In early December, Zeldin took a pass on the contest, but hardly offered her any sort of unifying support, as Politico noted:

“I won’t be running for RNC Chair at this time with McDaniel’s reelection pre-baked by design, but that doesn’t mean she should even be running again,” he said in a statement.

Zeldin added: “Change is desperately needed, and there are many leaders, myself included, ready and willing to step up to ensure our party retools and transforms as critical elections fast approach, namely the 2024 Presidential and Congressional races.”

The need for outside pressure to unravel McDaniel’s support inside the RNC might well lead Team Dhillon to get more publicly nasty in its criticisms. Dhillon is also associating the incumbent with another MAGA devil-figure, Mitch McConnell, as part of the 2022 losing team. And how can anyone who has applauded Trump’s wild smears and personal attacks for years (as both candidates have done) really complain? It could be a post-election gift to Democrats when all the radioactive dust settles.

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The Ugly, Trumpy Fight for the RNC Chairmanship