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Semafor LogoDavid Weigel and Shelby Talcott
politics

Why does anyone want to re-elect the RNC chair? We asked.

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Title iconThe News

Photo: Flickr/Gage Skidmore

The Republican National Committee will elect its chair in 10 days, after a contentious campaign between three-term incumbent Ronna McDaniel and California RNC member Harmeet Dhillon, with MyPillow founder Mike Lindell shooting from the sidelines.

McDaniel told Semafor that she had “well enough support to win” a fourth and final term at the party’s winter meeting next week and that her decisive bloc of 100 out of 168 voting members who’d publicly vowed to support her early in the process remained committed.

Nonetheless, Dhillon has turned her uphill battle into a feast for conservative media, where voices are eager to assign blame for yet another disappointing election night.

“I think people are tired of waiting for [Ronna to step down] and are more concerned about losing in 2024 than breaking any glass in the process,” Dhillon told Semafor. “I had an amazing outpouring organically of grassroots support just happening immediately after my Tucker Carlson interview on December 5 announcing I was running.”

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The RNC’s top job mostly deals with administrative tasks and fundraising, run out of a D.C. office that Dhillon talks about relocating. It attracts more national interest when a party is in the wilderness — and Republicans are currently as deep in the woods as it gets.

But McDaniel and her supporters argue that activists are misdirecting their anger over the GOP’s recent stumbles at her.

“The members who are voting for me very much understand what the RNC does,” McDaniel said.

Semafor spoke to the two leading candidates as well as RNC members backing both about what they’re looking for in a chair and how the race has played out.

Title iconThe View From Harmeet Dhillon
Harmeet Dhillon
REUTERS/Jim Urquhart

The case made by Dhillon and her backers is simple: Why stick with the same person when the party’s underperformed for three election cycles in a row?

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“Things aren't going well,” Dhillon told Semafor. “We aren't winning elections. It's insufficient to say that you're knocking on more doors, or you're turning out more voters. If those voters aren't voting Republican, or you're knocking on doors and not connecting with or persuading voters, that's just numbers on a piece of paper.”

Conservative voters may not understand every fine point of list building, turnout programs, or targeted voter outreach initiatives, but the simple accountability message has helped her keep grassroots pressure on the deciding votes.

Dhillon, who entered the contest’s final days with 29 public endorsements, told Semafor that she was continuing to lobby members, as supporters emailed them and urged them to flip. Many members, she said, were “not nuts about hearing from voters directly,” but understood her pitch.

“Every member of the RNC has probably received over a thousand, or thousands, of emails supporting me,” Dhillon said. “We've lost all the elections since she became the chair of the RNC. I don't count a five-vote, slim [House] majority, when we've lost the Senate, as a win in 2022. You promised people a red wave.”

Dhillon’s also secured endorsements from some prominent Republican donors, including Home Depot founder Bernie Marcus and megadonor Dick Uihlein — which, she argues, should be an indicator that a change in leadership is necessary. (McDaniel released her own list, of 150 donors who want her to stay on, earlier today.)

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“I don't think Ronna is a prolific fundraiser,  because, frankly, she's had the benefit of Donald Trump's coattails for six years,” Dhillon argued. “With the number of billionaires and multimillionaire donors who've said that they won't contribute to the RNC unless there's a change in leadership, and then they also support me, I think if we're not paying attention to that, we're not really doing our fiduciary duty.”

Jonathan Barnett, an RNC committeeman from Arkansas, was also convinced by Dhillon’s argument that the party was wasting money on consultants who didn’t deliver wins.

“A lot of it's a round robin,” he explained, saying that people who leave party roles to launch for-profit firms had become a problem. “You kind of wonder about it. What goods and services are they providing for us, really?”

Title iconThe View From Ronna McDaniel

For both McDaniel and her RNC supporters, the counterargument to Dhillon’s point of view is also simple: The RNC has, in fact, had wins under McDaniel, and anyone saying otherwise is overplaying their hand.

“I think there's a tendency to scapegoat or ignore the wins,” McDaniel told Semafor. “I mean, we defied history in 2018, picking up three Senate seats in a midterm year. We picked up 15 seats in 2020 in the House, which was unprecedented, and then this year, winning back the House.”

While high-profile candidates blew key races in the midterms, a number of state parties had top-to-bottom victories and the GOP continued to make gains with nonwhite voters in some contests. Supporters argue those are better representative of her success fostering institutions that can build on gains from cycle to cycle.

“If you look at the states that we won handily in, and you talk to the chairs from those states — Florida, Iowa, North Carolina, Ohio — they're all supporting me because they say the RNC investment was critical to those victories,” McDaniel said.

McDaniel also pointed to the GOP’s lead in the national House vote, which failed to translate into as many wins as they hoped, but was — she argued — a sign of a functional turnout operation that would deliver them the White House again.

McDaniel’s supporters are also annoyed at the bombardment of emails and calls they’ve been receiving by Dhillon supporters — Iowa GOP chairman Jeff Kaufmann told Semafor that he’s “tired” of what he described as “uninformed chain emails” and suggested it’s a “power struggle” for groups like Turning Point as well as Lindell. Meanwhile, some are also annoyed by the tactics Dhillon and her backers have used to get their message out.

“I certainly don't think the scorched-earth campaign that's being run by my opponent is something that brings people together,” McDaniel said. “I don't think attacking other Republicans is how we get other Republicans to vote for us.”

As for Dhillon’s push to blame McDaniel for Republicans’ slew of lackluster results? That’s an unfair characterization, according to McDaniel and her supporters.

“Yes, the party is important. The party gives you resources, but the party does not pick the candidates. So, you know, who's responsible for the loss in Georgia? Primarily, Herschel Walker is,” Kaufmann said. “Who's responsible for the loss in Pennsylvania? Dr. Oz is. Who is responsible for the win in Iowa? Kim Reynolds was. To try and blame Ronna for all of those … it’s actually silliness.”

Or, as McDaniel put it: “I'm not the coach. I don't pick the players, the voters do. I don't call the plays, the candidates pick their own plays”

Title iconDave and Shelby's View

How did an election with just 168 voters become an obsession for the grassroots right? Why did a letter from 100 RNC members endorsing McDaniel’s re-election, which convinced GOP golden child Lee Zeldin that a McDaniel victory was “pre-baked,” not end the contest?

Dhillon just kept going, personally appealing to fellow RNC members while encouraging conservatives to push them from the outside. (Lindell, who’s also seeking the job, told CNN that he was keeping his own endorsements “discreet” before the meeting, which will elect a chair by Jan. 27.)

But it’s also not clear a campaign based on outside pressure will work as well in a race that’s decided by party chairs and committee members away from the public’s eye.

Six years ago, the last time Democrats had a serious fight for their chairmanship, the party encouraged public input — forums in multiple swing states, a televised debate that let fringe candidates share time with eventual winner Tom Perez.

McDaniel has avoided that, and the only forum she’ll participate in next week will be closed to anyone but RNC members. They, McDaniel said, are the voters, and she’d engaged with outside media and advocates plenty. “I've been on TV, I’ve been in public, I've been on Steve Bannon’s show,” she said.

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