Harmeet Dhillon greets President Donald Trump after he arrives aboard Air Force One at Moffett Federal Airfield in Mountain View, California, Sept. 17, 2019.
DANA POINT, Calif. ― As Republicans decide whether to award party chair Ronna McDaniel another term after three bad elections in a row, they continue to ignore the 239-or-so-pound, orange-makeup-wearing, coup-attempting elephant in the room.
Since the start of McDaniel’s tenure at the Republican National Committee in 2017, Democrats won back the House in 2018, won the presidency and the Senate in 2020, and enjoyed the best midterm for a party controlling the White House in decades, barely losing the House this past November and actually picking up a seat in the Senate.
In each of those elections, voters said one of their major motivating factors was a deep dislike of former President Donald Trump ― a distaste that manifested itself in 2022 in defeats of Trump-backed Republicans in key statewide races all over the country.
“When Republicans see Sen. [Chuck] Schumer presiding over the U.S. Senate, they have no one to blame except Don Trump,” said New Jersey’s Bill Palatucci, one of the few outspoken Trump critics on the 168-member committee, referring to the New York Democrat’s continued role as majority leader.
Despite this, in pitches and arguments both for and against McDaniel, Trump’s name almost never comes up.
Her chief rival, California RNC member Harmeet Dhillon, has spent weeks explaining to Republicans and conservatives all over the country that she is “tired of losing.” In her telling, McDaniel has actually had five bad elections, counting the Georgia runoffs in 2020 and 2022 as separate events.
Of course, it was not McDaniel who alienated key blocs of swing voters in Republican-leaning suburbs with a chaotic and dishonest leadership style, an attempted extortion of Ukraine and, on Jan. 6, 2021, an attempted coup to remain in power. It was not McDaniel who traveled to Georgia ahead of the runoffs in 2020 and told voters that elections were rigged, thereby depressing turnout and leading to two Democratic wins. And it was not McDaniel who recruited candidates in 2022 exclusively based on their willingness to lie that the 2020 election had been stolen.
An ally close to Dhillon’s race for chair, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said nevertheless that if RNC members decide Trump is indeed the main problem, then McDaniel ― who was hand-picked by Trump for the job six years ago ― is not the solution.
Dhillon refused to take part in Trump’s various and ill-fated lawsuits to overturn his 2020 election loss, the ally said, while McDaniel permitted Trump’s legal team of Sidney Powell and Rudy Giuliani to hold an outlandish news conference at RNC headquarters in which they claimed that a plot involving dead Venezuelan dictator Hugo Chavez had stolen Trump’s victory from him.
“Maybe the answer is we shouldn’t have a leader who spends all her time hand-holding Donald Trump,” the ally said.
For her part, McDaniel in her own defense does not blame Trump by name for losses that can clearly, according to exit polling, be laid at his feet.
Instead, she argues that the RNC’s role is to register voters and raise money, and that the committee does not pick candidates or offer campaign strategy. The closest she comes to suggesting that candidates who won primaries based on their willingness to repeat Trump’s election lies wound up being poor general-election nominees is to point out that in all but one of the contested states, at least one Republican did manage to win statewide ― proving that the party had indeed laid the groundwork for success.
While Trump allies in Arizona and Georgia argue that the RNC did not do enough for gubernatorial nominee Kari Lake or Senate nominee Herschel Walker, McDaniel counters that the single biggest vote-getter in Arizona was Kimberly Yee, the Republican nominee for treasurer, and that eight Republicans won statewide races in Georgia.
Indeed, Yee, in winning a second term, received 120,000 more votes than Lake. In Georgia, Gov. Brian Kemp won 203,000 more votes than Walker. Yee was ignored entirely by Trump, while Kemp was the one candidate Trump worked hardest to defeat in the primaries.
The Trump avoidance has carried over into the related question of how to catch up with Democrats in early and absentee voting. Both McDaniel and Dhillon emphasize the importance of improving Republicans’ mail ballot “chasing” programs. However, they neglect to point out that their party was the pioneer in this tactic but then threw away that advantage when Trump declared in early 2020 that mail voting was somehow fraudulent.
When Fox Business host Stuart Varney challenged her last month to explain why all this wasn’t Trump’s fault, McDaniel said it was too soon, and that she had commissioned an “after action” report to understand what happened in the midterms. “I’m not into the blame game right now. We’ve got to do an analysis. I think it’s too quick,” she said.
Rather than blame Trump, McDaniel has decried the aggressive campaign mounted by Dhillon, which has included urging conservative audiences all over the country to badger their local RNC members into voting for a change.
Dhillon has attacked McDaniel for spending too much on party consultants and vendors ― even though Dhillon herself has received $1.3 million in payments from the RNC since appearing at a Trump White House social media event in 2019. She has implied that McDaniel was winning over commitments for votes from the 168-member group by offering choice committee assignments and other perks.
On a recent podcast run by allies of Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell, McDaniel said Dhillon was running a “scorched-earth” campaign against her. “I’m watching a woman I thought was my friend do that to me,” she said.
Some RNC members believe that Dhillon’s style, and particularly her ginning up of grassroots activists to lobby them, may wind up working against her.
“Some of the tactics have been overbearing and have probably backfired,” said one senior RNC member, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
The member said that, in the end, Republicans who are ready to move on from Trump are looking in the wrong place if they’re focused on Friday’s election at the committee’s winter meeting ― which will also include as a nominee pillowmonger turned election conspiracy theorist Mike Lindell.
“Who’s going to be our nominee for ’24 is really what matters the most,” the member said. “That’s the real battle for the future of the party. Not the chairman of the RNC race.”
That offers small comfort to Republicans eager for the party to move past Trump.
Dan Eberhart, head of an oil services company and a major Republican donor who has been sounding the alarm about Trump for several years, said the recent election is yet more evidence that the party needs to act quickly.
“The RNC needs to focus on winning elections instead of trying to stay on Trump’s good side. Winning elections requires candidates who can succeed with general-election voters and not just a partisan primary,” he said. “The Trump base may want to weed out those Republicans they consider insufficiently loyal, but that makes for a much smaller and weaker party. We need to attract more voters if we want to be able to govern, not fewer.”
Amanda Carpenter, a former top aide to Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, said that, unfortunately, it’s too much to expect for the RNC to take the lead in breaking away from Trump.
“Republicans do want to win again, no doubt. They are realizing they can’t do that with Trump. But I don’t expect the rank and file to say that out loud unless there is someone else to move on to,” she said. “The RNC is subservient to the last or next GOP nominee. It’s in limbo until then.”