DANA POINT, Calif. (AP) — The Republican National Committee Chair Ronna McDaniel is fighting for reelection in a bitter leadership feud that’s testing former President Donald Trump‘s grip on his own “Make America Great Again” movement.
The high-profile contest to lead the GOP through the 2024 presidential election was underway Friday afternoon as elected members from across the country gathered for a secret vote at the committee‘s winter meeting in Southern California.
The former president is privately backing McDaniel, whom he picked for the job after his victory in 2016. But rebel factions inside his own MAGA movement have lined up behind her challenger, Trump attorney Harmeet Dhillon.
In her opening remarks, McDaniel pleaded with RNC members to put their differences aside after the vote.
“Coming together is the beginning. Staying together is progress. But working together is success,” she said. “We have to come together after this meeting and focus on what we have ahead of us.”
Dhillon has waged an aggressive challenge against McDaniel that featured allegations of chronic misspending, mismanagement and even religious bigotry against Dhillon‘s Sikh faith - all claims that McDaniel has denied. Above all, the case against McDaniel, a niece of Utah Sen. Mitt Romney, has been focused on conservative frustration with repeated election losses on her watch.
The vote comes as the Republican Party struggles to unify behind a message or a messenger as the 2024 presidential season begins. Similar divisions plagued the House GOP’s dayslong fight to elect a House speaker earlier in the month. And on Friday, those same forces are threatening to derail McDaniel’s bid to become the longest-serving RNC chair since the Civil War.
Ahead of Friday’s vote, Dhillon cited the Republican base’s overwhelming desire for change and threatened political retribution for the RNC members who dared support McDaniel’s reelection.
“Ignoring the will of the voters in your state is a good way not to elected again,” Dhillon told The Associated Press.
McDaniel is fighting MAGA frustration even after Trump dispatched his lieutenants to California in the days leading up to the vote to help boost McDaniel. The former president’s senior adviser Susie Wiles was among those Trump allies hosting private conversations with RNC members on Thursday.
Trump avoided making a public endorsement only at McDaniel’s request, according to those with direct knowledge of the situation. McDaniel’s team was confident she would win without his public backing, allowing her to maintain a sense of neutrality heading into the 2024 presidential primary season.
Former Trump White House chief of staff Reince Priebus, a former RNC chair, was among those who gathered at the Waldorf Astoria this week to lobby for McDaniel.
“It appears as though Ronna’s in very good shape to get reelected,” Priebus said.
Meanwhile, Dhillon‘s allies were hard at work as well.
Former Arizona candidate for governor Kari Lake was on site to lobby RNC members on Dhillon’s behalf. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, considered a top 2024 presidential prospect, also spoke out against McDaniel on the eve of the vote.
“I think we need a change. I think we need to get some new blood in the RNC,” DeSantis said in an interview with Florida’s Voice, citing three “substandard election cycles in a row” under McDaniel’s leadership.
The next RNC chair will lead the committee through the 2024 presidential election.
The RNC controls much of the presidential nominating process - including the debates and voting calendar - while directing GOP fundraising efforts and the sprawling nationwide infrastructure designed to elect the next Republican president.
According to its rules, the RNC must remain neutral in the presidential primary. Trump is the only announced GOP candidate so far, but other high-profile contenders are expected in the coming months.
Dhillon, whose law firm earned more than $400,000 representing Trump and his political organizations in the 2022 midterms, promised to leave her law practice if elected. The California attorney also vowed to remain independent in the 2024 Republican primary should she win.
Also in the race is MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell, a pro-Trump conspiracy theorist who secured enough support to qualify for the ballot.
Lindell has already endorsed Trump‘s 2024 campaign and said he would not change his mind if his longshot bid is successful Friday.
“I’ve never not endorsed Donald Trump,” Lindell said. “I’m never moving off that space.”
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