The final leadership test for the Republican Party will be settled by secret ballot

Dana Point, California

A new family feud is bubbling within the Republican Party.

As the GOP begins to consider the 2024 presidential campaign — and in the wake of a disappointing midterm election and a messy race to elect House Speaker Kevin McCarthy — members of the Republican National Committee are expected to elect a leader Friday in a contest that revealed deep divisions inside the party.

Ronna McDaniel, chair of the RNC, faces a fierce challenge as she seeks a rare fourth term in a post she has held since 2017 and was handpicked by former President Donald Trump. Chief rival Harmeet Dhillon, one of Trump’s many lawyers, says it’s high time to bring new blood into the party leadership ranks.

A secret ballot will determine whether McDaniel, Dhillon or My Pillow CEO Mike Lindell – an election denier and Trump conspiracy theorist – will be selected by 168 RNC members who traveled from all 50 states to a resort town here in California from the South.

Gone are the days when party bosses could actually control their political parties. Still, the post remains highly influential, particularly in helping to plan the debates and many other aspects of the presidential primaries as Republicans strive to regroup and win back the White House.

Friday’s vote marks the first competitive fight for the position in more than a decade.

The battle created some strange bedfellows and came to life with pointed questions about party spending, allegations of RNC profiteering and accusations of being too loyal – or not loyal enough – to Trump. It’s a far cry from the classic establishment-anti-establishment divide that once rocked the party, but rather the next chapter in this war, with some Trump loyalists fighting it out even as other party loyalists plead for a new direction.

While the former president is at the center of it all, he took a rare back seat in the fight, saying last week of McDaniel and Dhillon: “I love them both. Let them fight.

For Republicans, it’s the final test of party identity and its ability to present a unified front as the Trump era enters its final days — or opens a new chapter, depending on the outcome of his latest candidacy. to the White House.

“There are a lot of RNC members who want change,” said Henry Barbour, a longtime RNC member from Mississippi, who leans in support of McDaniel. “It’s something that people are weighing very seriously because the election of 24 is a great opportunity for our party. It’s one we can’t blow up.

While McDaniel appears to have the upper hand, some committee members said Friday’s election could span multiple rounds, since members will vote by secret ballot and a majority is needed to win. Both sides believe that anonymity could work to their advantage.

“The reason it’s never done until it’s done is because the members of the RNC are experienced political hands,” said Bill Palatucci, a New Jersey committee member who supports Dhillon. “They know how to look you in the eye and say, ‘I love you,’ and then walk into the voting booth because it’s a secret ballot and slit your throat.”

Another committee member, who requested anonymity to speak candidly, said he was inclined to support McDaniel but ‘could still be persuaded’ to vote for Dhillon, depending on how RNC leaders address shortcomings. of the party’s midterm elections at the three-day winter meeting. the week.

Even among political enthusiasts, the race is the epitome of indoor baseball, similar to electing a class president but with much higher stakes. The final hours of the heated campaign are playing out in the hallways and boardrooms of the Waldorf Astoria at Dana Point, a luxury resort about an hour south of Los Angeles, where the three candidates met behind closed doors Wednesday after -noon to answer questions in a private meeting. forum.

“When you go against an incumbent, you have to explain why a change is needed,” Dhillon told CNN Wednesday night as she spoke to reporters, acknowledging that she had been confronted by some members with the tone of the race. . “We can’t have a change unless we recognize that we did something wrong.”

Dhillon, who is an RNC member from California, is set to have a handful of alternates at the meeting, including Turning Point USA founder Charlie Kirk and Arizona gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake. .

Meanwhile, McDaniel is expected to get a boost from Trump’s inner circle, including chief adviser Susie Wiles, who is expected to help the president’s voting operation.

Wiles has worked closely with McDaniel since joining Trump’s political operation in early 2021, including throughout the most recent midterm election cycle. Wiles does not have a close relationship with Dhillon, a person familiar with the matter said, and has been frustrated with Dhillon’s allies overstating her relationship with Trump during the RNC campaign for president.

Dhillon’s legal group represented Trump in his dealings with the House Select Committee investigating the events surrounding the January 6, 2021 attack on the U.S. Capitol, with the RNC paying more than $1 million for legal work.

Despite his alliance with the former president, Dhillon also won the support of some of the most vocal anti-Trump voices within the RNC’s 168-member electorate – including Palatucci.

In an email to other members last week, a copy of which was shared with CNN, the New Jersey Republican said he would support Dhillon because they are “both tired of losing.”

“The RNC must stand up against bigotry, racism and intolerance,” Palatucci said. “Lincoln’s Party must be shameless in denouncing hate as unacceptable, with no place in our political discourse.”

As several Southern party state executive committees have taken no-confidence votes against McDaniel, other statewide GOP leaders have lamented the campaign tactics Dhillon has deployed since entering the race. early December.

Later that month, Dhillon accused current RNC leaders of “handing out benefits” to members in exchange for their support in the presidential race.

“They are offering to pay legal fees that they were unwilling to pay two weeks ago. They offer cash transfers to the state. They offer contracts. They offer comfortable committee assignments. I can’t compete with that,” she told a conservative radio host at the time.

The suggestion prompted an immediate backlash from members of private email chains obtained by CNN, with Washington committee member Jeff Kent accusing Dhillon of insulting the members’ “integrity” and others saying the claims from Dhillon had led to “phone calls, emails and text messages accusing me of benefiting from my support for President McDaniel.

A few weeks later, a whisper campaign about Dhillon’s Sikh faith caused another stir among members, sparking outrage among supporters over questions about his religious beliefs.

“Attacking the Sikh faith of an Asian-American candidate for president of the 4 RNC has the lens of racism!” tweeted Oregon committee member Solomon Yue, an early supporter of Dhillon. The episode even prompted McDaniel, a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, to issue a statement condemning “religious bigotry in all its forms,” ​​while her allies insisted she had nothing to do with Dhillon’s attacks on faith.

As the winter meeting drew closer, some Republicans accused Dhillon of dramatically shifting his tone to appeal to members who may have been put off by some of his early campaign tactics or allegations.

In a final message to fellow RNC members, Dhillon described what the first three months of transition would look like if she were elected the party’s next president. She linked to an essay she wrote for The Daily Wire outlining her concerns and vision, including calling on Republicans to take early voting more seriously whether or not they agree with these laws. ‘State.

“When Democrats vote for a month and Republicans for a day, we lost before we even warmed up,” Dhillon wrote. “Until election month is squeezed into a short early voting period, we need to compete and outplay Democrats in early voting, including competing for independent voters before the opposition gets to them. .”