PHOENIX — Ronna McDaniel’s path to another two-year term leading the Republican National Committee faces a major obstacle: Some of the loudest voices in the conservative movement are calling for her to go.
As she seeks a rare fourth term as RNC chair, McDaniel is facing fierce criticism from a horde of right-wing media figures who reach millions of GOP faithful. Now, McDaniel has to hold down her support on the committee for five weeks as a grassroots army rages against her.
Since the midterms, RNC members say their inboxes have been clogged with hundreds of emails each week — and the uproar has now turned to the RNC’s spending on events, private travel, luxury accommodations and other expenses in an election cycle that didn’t deliver strong GOP wins. McDaniel’s top opponent is Harmeet Dhillon, an RNC committeewoman from California and election law attorney who has represented Donald Trump.
The contentious chair’s race playing out in the public eye follows Republican disappointments the last three election cycles. And the current RNC contest comes as the party braces for a potential 2024 showdown between Trump and other Republican candidates calling for a new face of the GOP — and new strategies for voter outreach and messaging.
Some of the most prominent instigators of the wave of anti-McDaniel sentiment have been Fox News hosts like Tucker Carlson, whom Dhillon has known since the early 1990s, when they both worked as assistant editors on Heritage Foundation’s “Policy Review” magazine.
From the stage at Turning Point USA’s conference Saturday night in Phoenix, Carlson gave Dhillon a shoutout before bashing the RNC under McDaniel.
“You’re flying on private planes with the money that, like, sweet, terrified Republican voters have sent to you from the middle of the country,” Carlson said of McDaniel. “And you’re losing elections. No. If you win elections, well, we can talk about it. If you’re losing, get out. We cannot reward incompetence.”
So far, the pressure campaign from inside and outside the RNC has not diminished McDaniel’s support. The question is whether she can maintain that support until the RNC’s leadership election Jan. 27.
Letters of support for McDaniel show her backers number as many as 107 of the RNC’s 168 voting members — more than the majority needed to win. That outcome would defy the demands of a chorus of national conservative voices, though Dhillon said some 50 members have committed to support her, and she expects to continue peeling off McDaniel backers.
“She was elected three times without opposition, and we’ve lost all three times, all three cycles,” said Roger Villere, the RNC committeeman from Louisiana, who is supporting Dhillon. “You could say she’s spending that money to help us win, but we’ve been losing.”
The recent focus on RNC travel and event spending stems from an anonymously authored report that began circulating last month, when members first discussed it with POLITICO. Last week, the conservative blog RedState published a story based on the 60-page document, sparking the latest brouhaha in the heated race between McDaniel and Dhillon.
In an interview, Dhillon said she felt like she was in an “alternate universe,” with RNC members sticking with McDaniel despite Republican losses and calls from the base for new leadership. She described it as an “emperor-has-no-clothes” scenario, where activists see McDaniel as a failure, but “half the members of the RNC are like, ‘Oh yes, what a lovely outfit the emperor is wearing.’”
The Californian’s bid has raised objections from some RNC members who say Dhillon is needlessly stirring up controversy, such as her accusation that McDaniel has bribed members for votes. They’ve also noted her recent financial stake in RNC business: as a conservative lawyer based in San Francisco, Dhillon’s firm has received roughly $1 million for providing legal services to the committee. Her firm’s work with the RNC increased the last two years, as other lawyers cut ties with Trump and the committee in the aftermath of the 2020 election.
Dhillon said if elected chair, she would remove herself from any decisions about which law firms the RNC hires, but noted there are dwindling numbers of firms willing to take on the work.
In an email sent to members on Friday afternoon, Gordon Kinne, a committeeman from Missouri asked, “Harmeet, what’s your endgame?”
“Are you actually running to become the chairman of the organization you’re currently trashing, or you burnishing your own brand at the expense of your colleagues and the RNC itself?” Kinne wrote. He said Dhillon should make public her list of supporters to prove she has an actual shot at ousting McDaniel.
Allies of Dhillon argue it’s only a matter of time before more members, under mounting pressure, walk back their support for McDaniel.
Carlson and other prominent conservative media figures are doing their part.
Conservative celebs pick their corners
On Thursday, Carlson brought country music artist and RNC donor John Rich onto his primetime show, where Rich condemned RNC officials as “scoundrels” who were “abusing their position with conservatives around this country.” Rich told viewers not to give the committee another cent.
Laura Ingraham, who attended the same undergraduate and law schools as Dhillon, brought her on her Fox News show Thursday evening and called for a “changing of the guard” at the RNC. In his newsletter the same day, Mike Huckabee said the recent report on RNC finances was “not flattering.”
A host of other conservative media figures, some of whom are longtime McDaniel critics, have also joined forces in recent days to bash her leadership or to promote Dhillon. They include Charlie Kirk, Mark Levin, Ben Shapiro, Megyn Kelly, Dan Bongino, Lou Dobbs, Kurt Schlichter and Erick Erickson.
McDaniel has received on-air support from commentators such as Hugh Hewitt and Kellyanne Conway.
Trump on Saturday, meanwhile, told Breitbart, “Harmeet is my lawyer … I like them both.” An aide to Trump said he has no plans to get involved with the race.
On Friday, Steve Bannon invited McDaniel on his show to defend herself from the right-wing heat. She repeatedly called the story on RNC finances a “hit piece.”
“The vast majority of those expenses were in support of the White House and President Trump, so you know, Harmeet sits on the executive committee, she votes on these budgets, we file an FEC report every month. She had ample time to raise questions and clarify,” McDaniel said. “The intent of this is to hurt the RNC. The intent is to mislead. And it’s coming from one of our members … who engaged in a hit piece.”
She said the RNC under her tenure paid for White House events and gifts like Christmas cards, ornaments and Trump books. And she noted that private jet payments were also related to transporting Trump to fundraising events, McDaniel said.
Schlichter said in an interview that conservatives are demanding that something change after another cycle of disappointments.
“We in the base expect an answer,” Schlichter said. “We’re the people who are knocking doors. We’re the people who make the phone calls. We’re the people who sign the checks.”
But Reince Priebus, McDaniel’s predecessor who has endorsed her bid for a fourth term as chair, defended the RNC’s recent approach to spending on events and travel. That’s despite it being much different than the methods he once employed.
“You can’t make money in anything without spending money,” Priebus said in an interview. “My guess is the RNC has probably the best value for every dollar donated than any organization in D.C., including all of these super PACs that talk a big game.”
Priebus’ time as RNC chair, however, came under much different circumstances. When he took the reins in 2011, ousting previous chair Michael Steele, the committee was $26 million in debt, and Priebus quickly imposed accountability measures. Staff were instructed to spend as little as possible on food, transportation and other expenses.
Some prominent donors had cut ties with the RNC in light of Steele’s financial management practices, which included high-dollar spending on private planes, limousines, gourmet catering and other lavish entertainment.
An insider process goes public
Formal RNC meetings are now held just twice a year, and most people on the member roster lack prominent national profiles. One person close to the RNC described the group and its process for picking a new chair as closer to a papal enclave than a raucous GOP primary. But the recent challenge by Dhillon has pitted members against each other in public and sparked an uncomfortable open-air debate about the committee itself and the direction of the party.
State RNC delegations from Texas and Arizona in recent weeks have called for McDaniel’s ouster, while the Nebraska GOP chair rescinded his endorsement of her, saying he would cast his vote based on his state party’s preference. The Tennessee GOP’s executive committee voted “overwhelmingly” Dec. 10 for a change of leadership at the RNC, said committeewoman Beth Campbell.
Campbell questioned why McDaniel emailed members Thursday calling the recent report on RNC finances “outright lies,” since it was based on expenditures publicly filed with the Federal Election Commission. McDaniel has noted that the expenses in question made up less than 1 percent of the committee’s total spending.
“Why are they calling it ‘lies’ if it’s on the report that the treasurer signed?” Campbell said. “What we need to know is, is the FEC report correct?”
The anonymous memo that was circulated, directed to “interested parties,” does not state who prepared and paid for it.
The report largely focuses on $2.6 million in expenses from 2021 to 2022 related to luxury travel, retreats, clothing, alcohol and beauty services. The document also blasted the “undeniable appearance of a revolving door between RNC employees and vendors,” including past staff members who went on to provide lucrative services to the committee through their firms.
Some donors, including Rich, have said they will withhold future contributions from the RNC if McDaniel remains in her post.
“It’s Michael Steele all over again,” said Alfred Hoffman Jr., a Florida-based GOP donor who served as finance chair for the RNC during the 2000 and 2004 election cycles. He said he gave the RNC $100,000 annually for several years during that time and brought in hundreds of other donors to do the same in his finance role.
But in the past two years, Hoffman has stopped his donations to the committee, while continuing to give funds to candidates and other Republican groups. Earlier this month, he copied members on a letter calling on McDaniel to resign, suggesting she “gracefully exit stage left” before the January leadership election.
Don Huffines, a Republican donor in Texas who also stopped giving to the RNC years ago, called the committee “a nest of potential corruption, with consultants milking donors.” He said Friday he will consider donating to the organization if Dhillon takes over.
“It’s one thing to raise money — and that’s what they do, is raise a lot of money,” Huffines said. “It’s another thing to deploy it effectively, and they don’t do that well.”
Glenn McCall, chair of the RNC’s Budget Committee, last week sent an email to members vehemently defending McDaniel and the RNC’s spending program during her tenure. In an interview, McCall said the report only provided “half the truth” and lacked important context.
“I never hear a member complain about the free dinners, the free breakfasts and other memorabilia we give,” McCall said of gestures the RNC provides at its meetings throughout the year.
In a statement, top Trump adviser Susie Wiles said many of the RNC expenses that are now in question were made “at the direction of the White House,” and she called much of the recent criticism of the RNC’s spending “misleading and disingenuous.”
McCall also told fellow members it was “extremely sexist” to criticize McDaniel for using RNC funds for hair, makeup and other beauty services ahead of media appearances.
While RNC operating expenditures increased more than 150 percent between the 2016 and 2020 election cycles, so did the committee’s cash intake. Under McDaniel, the committee has continued to break fundraising records during both presidential and midterm cycles.
Just four RNC chair races have been contested over the past 30 years, most recently when Priebus defeated Steele in 2011 after seven rounds of voting to obtain a majority. Prior to that, Steele ousted incumbent chair Mike Duncan in 2009 after six rounds of votes. The field of candidates was also crowded in 1993 and 1997, when Haley Barbour and Jim Nicholson, respectively, were elected.
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