In this edition: Why the RNC voted to keep its chairwoman, why the president fares so poorly in a Ne͏‌  ͏‌  ͏‌  ͏‌  ͏‌  ͏‌ 


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In this edition: Why the RNC voted to keep its chairwoman, why the president fares so poorly in a New Hampshire poll, and what the leading candidates for Chicago mayor have to say about each other.

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David Weigel

Ronna McDaniel is the Republican Party chair again. Here's how she pulled it off.


Ronna McDaniel

Flickr/Gage Skidmore

DANA POINT, Ca. – Republican National Committee chair Ronna McDaniel secured a fourth two-year term term on Friday, fending off challenges from a California party activist and conservative multi-millionaire after a short but bitter campaign.

“We heard you, grassroots,” said McDaniel, who was supported by 111 of the RNC’s 168 voting members. Harmeet Dhillon, a California RNC member and election attorney, won 51 votes; MyPillow founder Mike Lindell won 4.

“With us united, and all of us going together, the Democrats are going to hear us in 2024,” said McDaniel, after inviting Dhillon and Lindell onstage.

The outcome at the party’s winter meeting at the Waldorf Astoria was rarely in doubt. Former New York Rep. Lee Zeldin, one of the party’s brightest rising stars, considered a challenge to McDaniel, but scrapped it and declared her victory “pre-baked” after conversations with RNC members. (He received one write-in vote on Friday.)

But McDaniel’s path to re-election wasn’t a sleepy in-house conversation between party bureaucrats either — big conservative names loudly questioned her leadership, promoted Dhillon’s candidacy, and rallied activists against the status quo at the RNC. The contest became a focal point for anger over the party’s midterm failures, even as voters disagreed over the cause and the RNC candidates didn’t showcase especially deep divides on substance or philosophy.

"If [Ronna] wins, I can't in good faith tell my audience, our members, or our students to continue to support the RNC, financially or otherwise," Turning Point USA founder Charlie Kirk, whose group backed Dhillon, told Semafor, after arriving at the meeting. "I don't say that in some celebratory fashion or with a heart for arson, because you need a strong RNC.”

Speaking to reporters after the vote, Dhillon did not sound ready to begin the healing process. “There’s no unity outside the building, and I think I stood up for that,” she said. She attributed her loss to the party “ignoring the grassroots” and to consultants who relied on their connections to the current leadership. “People vote their interests,” she said.

Harmeet Dhillon and Mike Lindell. Photo: David Weigel.

In November, more than 100 RNC members signed a letter supporting McDaniel. By this week, as they met to discuss the chair race, the 2024 debate schedule, and other party business, some pro-McDaniel members said that they were unconvinced by Dhillon’s suggested changes, like canceling contracts with vendors who donated to Democrats and auditing the party’s spending.

Others were alienated by a pressure campaign organized by pro-Dhillon conservative activists that was filling up their email inboxes. Even some last-minute praise for Dhillon from Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who told Kirk in a filmed interview that the RNC needed “new blood” after three disappointing elections, did not convince members who saw McDaniel as an effective manager who had been unfairly blamed for other Republicans’ losses.

“Whether she personally wins or loses we all know that the party will survive,” Vermont GOP chair Paul Dame said in a statement endorsing McDaniel. “It’s unfortunate that her opponent is making the case that we are all doomed if Ronna wins again.”

The conservative campaign for Dhillon, and Lindell, put dozens of influential Republicans on record against McDaniel. Kirk’s conservative youth group Turning Point USA held an RNC straw poll, which Dhillon won, at its December convention in Phoenix, and backed her run.

“No one who gives a damn about this country can possibly vote to quadruple down on the failure of the Republican Party, okay?” District of Columbia RNC committee member Pat Lyman told Semafor on Wednesday, after a conservative radio forum with Lindell and Dhillon strategist Caroline Wren that McDaniel didn’t attend. “If we don’t save this party, we don’t fix this country.”

And while some criticized the tone of activism around Dhillon, Kirk said he’d heard from members who were pleased to see rank-and-file voters becoming more engaged in the RNC’s work, regardless of the outcome.

“I think it's great to hear from the people that you're also asking for money non-stop,” Kirk said. “Give us money! We need $10! We need $20! Stop emailing me about your opinions! Okay, which one is it?

McDaniel, running for the first time without Donald Trump’s endorsement, had made numerous changes to the party that won members over. She’d pulled the party out of the Commission on Presidential Debates, after anger from Trump and other conservatives in 2020. In a speech before the vote, she reminded the audience of the party’s 38 community centers in traditionally Democratic areas, its new “election integrity program,” and a midterm result that did put the GOP in control of the House

“Let’s be clear, we did fire Nancy Pelosi,” she said. “We are already holding Joe Biden accountable.”

For all the criticism, the RNC also entered and exited the weekend as a well-funded political machine, raising more money than its Democratic counterpart as it prepares to manage a primary between Trump and his possible challengers.


This is the point in the story where you might be asking yourself: Where does Trump fit into all this?

It’s complicated. McDaniel was only challenged in the first place because conservatives were frustrated that the “red wave,” or “red tsunami” — pick your favorite aquatic analogy — never arrived. Unwilling or unable to have a straightforward argument about Trump’s power over the party, and whether he was to blame for unnecessary midterm losses, the MAGA grassroots picked a fight with GOP leadership. Trump could not fail; he was failed by a party that didn’t fight as ruthlessly as the Democrats. Conservatives like Kirk worked to turn the race into a national referendum — a join-or-die choice for the party committee, to embrace the grassroots or to lose its support.

But Dhillon didn’t only try to court the MAGA faithful. Instead, she made simultaneous appeals to Trumpy Republicans angry that the RNC couldn’t put their candidates over the top, and to Trump skeptics who worried McDaniel would put the thumb on the scale for her longtime patron in 2024. As the vote neared, Dhillon told some members that she’d “do more than McDaniel to push back on Trump when needed,” as Politico put it.

Dhillon tried to thread the needle by focusing her critique of the party on its competency and lack of unity: She argued that the party was wasting money on consultants without transparency, and that grassroots conservatives who were getting it right needed to come inside the tent. (Lindell’s critique of the party was focused on “election integrity,” and his confidence that the party kept winning elections that were stolen by voting machines.)

“I want to surround myself with people who want to win,” Dhillon told reporters before the vote, as unsuccessful 2022 Arizona gubernatorial nominee Kari Lake lobbied members to support her. “That means votes from Kari Lake, and Charlie Kirk, and all the young people in the movement that he represents… we're defending and covering up instead of acknowledging and trying to change.”

The Map

National. Dan Pfeiffer assesses whether some Democrat not named “Joe Biden” would have a better chance at the presidency in 2024 … Katherine Stewart studies the “spirit warriors” gaining influence with social conservatives … Jonathan Martin stops by gubernatorial inaugurations in Maryland and Pennsylvania to study the Democratic bench … Zak Cheney-Rice declares an end to the “racial reckoning” that peaked in 2020.

Arizona. Marianne Levine and Burgess Everett talk with Democratic senators who aren’t ready to abandon Sen. Kyrsten Sinema for Rep. Ruben Gallego.

New York. Jessica Piper runs the math on how George Santos’s expenses kept falling a penny beneath the disclosure threshold.

Vermont. Katya Schwenk investigates the hype and nonsense around Burlington’s police funding cut.

Wisconsin. Reid J. Epstein covers the partisan battle for a “one-seat edge” in the state supreme court.


The discovery of classified documents at the president’s home and think tank office have given him two weeks of crisis, without dramatically changing voters’ minds about him. The vast majority of them think the scandal is “serious,” but the president’s approval rating hasn’t moved much since last month, before the documents story broke, dropping from 48% to 46%. One reason: Just 37% of voters think that Biden did “something illegal,” and a majority of self-described liberal and moderate voters say he didn’t. A majority of all voters say Donald Trump did do “something illegal” with the documents found at Mar-a-Lago. Biden benefits from the comparison.

These Democratic trial heats are some of the most baffling polls you’ll see, a reflection of how lost the party’s voters feel about their next nominee. Two-thirds of Democrats continue to oppose another Biden candidacy, even though only one in five view Biden himself unfavorably. Even Democrats with very little support in the trial heat, like Warnock and Ocasio-Cortez, have far higher favorable ratings with primary voters.

Kentucky’s Democratic governor took office just weeks before the covid-19 pandemic, and has been largely popular ever since, even as Republicans won every other significant race in the commonwealth. Cameron, the state’s first Black attorney general, has competition for the GOP gubernatorial nomination — state auditor Mike Harmon, state ag commissioner Ryan Quarles, and ex-U.N. Ambassador Kelly Craft. But he leads the primary field right now, as the only Republican who holds Beshear under 50%, winning over one in five voters who say they approve of the job Beshear’s doing.

An ad for Jesus "Chuy" Garcia in the Chicago mayoral race.
YouTube/Chuy García for Chicago

Friends of Chuy García, “Home.” The last major candidate to enter Chicago’s mayoral race, Rep. Jesus “Chuy Garcia” was also the last of them to go on air. His first ad covers all the Democratic bases on public safety, endorsing “more cops on our streets” while sweeping up “illegal guns” and “tackling the root causes of crime.” But the campaign stumbled: An image in the original version of the ad, of Garcia walking with two uniformed cops, violated police policy.

Lightfoot for Chicago, “Never Go Back.” This is the second anti-Garcia spot from Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s campaign, re-using the first ad’s animated puppets of Sam Bankman-Fried and former state House Speaker Mike Madigan. The hook is Garcia’s name surfacing in the Madigan corruption probe, a leak that drove news last week, even though the congressman wasn’t implicated in a crime. A narrator warns that Garcia would restore “a rigged system that only works for the connected and the corrupt,” invoking Lightfoot’s winning 2019 image as an anti-graft outsider.

Paul Vallas, “Lifelong Democrat.” Lightfoot’s lobbed more rocks at Garcia than Vallas, but she’s already road-tested her message to beat Vallas in a runoff. Citing his Fraternal Order of Police endorsement and his donations from Republicans, she warns that he’s a reactionary. Vallas’s first pushback is in this ad, which features a headline about his party loyalty and a larger headline about how he “advised Obama’s Department of Justice.”


One good question for Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot — and three of her challengers

Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot
YouTube/Lightfoot for Chicago

In Tuesday’s edition, Americana headed to Chicago to cover Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s uphill battle for re-election. We talked to the mayor and three leading rivals about their strategies, and their theories of what had gone wrong over the last four years. They had more to say than could fit in a single story, so we grabbed a single question and answer with each candidate: Lightfoot, Rep. Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, former Chicago Public Schools CEO Paul Vallas, and Cook County Commissioner Brandon Johnson.

Americana: Why should someone want to be a police officer in Chicago right now?

Lori Lightfoot: It’s a really good job, and it's a great city, and the vast majority of people in the city actually respect the police. They want them to engage in constitutional policing, but there's just not universal condemnation of the police in the city. The “defund” movement was never particularly strong here.

Now, that doesn't mean that people aren't still talking about it. You’ve got Chuy Garcia, who defunded the sheriff, police, and adult probation when he was a Cook county commissioner. He came here in 2020, after the murder of George Floyd, and was crying about the fact that he was supporting legislation in the House that would not add any money to policing — that he wouldn't support police officers in any way. You’ve got Brandon Johnson, who was fully invested in the defund movement. Nobody here in the city, when they know that, is going to support that.

Americana: You endorsed Lightfoot in 2019. When did you decide she wasn’t right for the job?

Jesus “Chuy” Garcia: She ran as a reformer. It's why she sought my endorsement four years ago. She hasn't lived up to that, not in the area of public safety. The consent decree — we're way, way behind in terms of implementation. It's the roadmap for a modern police force and for making communities safer. It's one of her biggest failings; her inability to collaborate with the Chicago City Council, with the Chicago Teachers Union, with other stakeholders — her lack of relationships in Springfield. She's been absent on a host of things. She wasn't around when the state enacted the Safety Act, a significant criminal justice reform. So I got very disappointed, after the vision that she articulated, with her inability to deliver on those things.

Americana: How quickly would you have reopened the schools?

Paul Vallas: By June 2020. COVID hits in March, and by June, it's clear. There was that extensive Georgia study, done with the CDC and buried, that basically pointed out that kids were minimally impacted, and that schools were not disease spreaders. In Chicago, the Archdiocese opened their schools with minimal impact. Now, that doesn't mean that they opened them fully. They had a hybrid model.

But the bottom line is, other states, places like Miami-Dade County, opened their schools. By the following year, it's clear that shutting schools down had devastating consequences. By that summer, it's pretty clear that you can reopen schools safely, following the proper mitigations and the proper protocols, but they didn't. They literally kept the schools closed for 15 consecutive months, and the mayor caved to the union pressure to strike incidentally, to illegally strike three times in keeping the school systems shut down. Let me point out that since COVID, 200 kids have been murdered, 17 years and younger, 95% of them not in school. The University of Chicago Crime Lab last year reported that 8% of the arrests for murders, 9% of arrests for shootings, almost 50% of the arrests for carjackings, and 32% of arrests for robberies were school-age youth 17 years and younger.

Americana: Why did crime increase after 2020?

Brandon Johnson: I don't know if it's one thing, but what I can say is that people have lost hope in this city. When we were organizing for a progressive income tax, it was Lori Lightfoot that said that you can't keep taxing those with means. This after 71% of Chicagoans voted for the progressive income tax [referendum.] She further exacerbated the tale of two cities. Right? And people have had experience with this, being ignored, over and over and over again.

There’s a direct correlation between youth employment and violence reduction. If we're not investing in people, we’re not investing in economic opportunities for families, that is going to continue to stress and strain communities, it's going to continue to exacerbate the trauma that people are feeling and experiencing. It places more pressure on law enforcement and places more pressure on our healthcare system, places more pressure on our education system, places more pressure on our criminal justice system.

  • 25 days until municipal primaries in Wisconsin and a special House election in Virginia
  • 32 days until Chicago's mayoral election
  • 67 days until Wisconsin's state Supreme Court election
  • 646 days until the 2024 presidential election
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