NEW YORK — (AP) — By week's end, the Republican National Committee is set to resolve a bitter leadership feud that has exposed perilous divisions within a party that has struggled to move past a disappointing midterm ahead of a critical race for the White House.
Those inside the fight believe the days ahead of Friday's secret ballot at a luxury seaside resort could get even uglier as rebel forces within former President Donald Trump's “Make America Great Again” movement threaten to upend RNC Chair Ronna McDaniel's reelection bid.
The attacks have been led by McDaniel's chief rival, Harmeet Dhillon, a Trump attorney who has accused the incumbent of religious bigotry, chronic misspending and privately claiming she can control the former president — allegations McDaniel denies. Also in the race is My Pillow CEO Mike Lindell, a pro-Trump conspiracy theorist who secured enough support to qualify for the ballot.
Trump hasn't made a public endorsement, but he and his team are privately advocating for McDaniel, whom he tapped for the position shortly after his 2016 victory. Still, many Trump loyalists blame McDaniel, the niece of Utah Sen. Mitt Romney, for some of the party's recent struggles.
In an interview, Dhillon insisted that the overwhelming majority of Republican voters want a leadership change at the RNC. She warned of serious political consequences for any of the committee’s 168 elected members who support McDaniel’s reelection.
“For those members of the party who vote not with what the people in their state want but with what their own self-interest is, the next time they’re up for election, it’s going to be an issue,” Dhillon told The Associated Press.
Apprised of Dhillon’s statement, McDaniel said, “That sounds like a threat.” She condemned the increasingly ugly attacks against her and the divisions plaguing the committee.
“There’s nobody who’s enjoyed this more than Democrats. I know, because I love it when they’re fighting each other,” McDaniel said.
Friday's vote for RNC chair serves as the latest high-profile leadership test for a deeply divided Republican Party grappling with questions about its future — and Trump's influence — ahead of the 2024 presidential election. The infighting was on public display earlier this month as House Republicans almost came to blows before uniting behind House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, undermined by the same MAGA forces threatening McDaniel this week.
In both cases, Trump has struggled to control his own loyalists, who seem intent on fighting the status quo — whether McCarthy or McDaniel — no matter the cost.
Seeking to influence the vote, a group of Florida Republicans from the party's MAGA wing moved last Friday to hold a vote of “no confidence” in McDaniel, which Republican groups in a handful of other states have done in recent weeks as well. But the Florida gathering, which drew leading McCarthy detractor Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., fell far short of reaching the quorum needed to hold an official vote.
Still, dozens of anti-McDaniel protesters waved signs outside the event. One read, “RONNA IS THE ENEMY WITHIN.”
“The biggest thing is that we want a really strong leader who’s in touch with MAGA, and Ronna just doesn’t have that,” Lake County, Florida, GOP Chair Anthony Sabatini, who led the anti-McDaniel push, said in a phone interview from a shooting range as gunshots rang out. “She’s lost the confidence of voters.”
Trump has avoided weighing in on the RNC chair fight at McDaniel's request, according to those with direct knowledge of the situation. The former president would endorse her if she asked, but McDaniel's team currently believes she will win without his public backing, allowing her to maintain a sense of neutrality heading into the 2024 presidential primary season.
According to its bylaws, 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.
Still, Trump could ultimately endorse McDaniel ahead of Friday's vote if his public support is deemed necessary, according to people familiar with his thinking who, like others interviewed, spoke on condition of anonymity to share internal discussions.
At least three top Trump lieutenants — senior advisers Susie Wiles, Chris LaCivita and Clayton Henson — are planning to attend this week's three-day RNC winter meeting in Southern California, where the vote will play out. While they are not attending specifically on McDaniel's behalf, Trump's team is making clear in private conversations that he backs McDaniel.
McDaniel's unofficial whip team is expected to include former Trump chief counselor Kellyanne Conway, former Trump chief of staff Reince Priebus, former Arizona Senate candidate Blake Masters, Family Research Council President Tony Perkins and conservative commentator Hugh Hewitt, she said. Another high-profile Trump loyalist, Maryland RNC member David Bossie, is also backing McDaniel.
Dhillon’s guest list is still in flux, but she said over the weekend that her team would likely include former Arizona gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake, MAGA influencer Charlie Kirk and country singer John Rich.
After three consecutive disappointing national elections, there is a broad sense of dissatisfaction among Republican voters and RNC members alike about the health of their party. Some are increasingly eager to move on from Trump and, by proxy, McDaniel, who is viewed as a close Trump ally — even if many Trump's supporters outside the RNC membership see her as insufficiently committed to their cause.
"She’s been Trump's lap dog for four-plus years,” said Bill Palatucci, an RNC member from New Jersey and a vocal critic of both Trump and McDaniel. While Palatucci formally endorsed Dhillon late last week, he is skeptical she has the votes to defeat McDaniel.
Dhillon has unleashed a torrent of attacks against McDaniel in recent weeks that have resonated across Trump's MAGA movement. But as the far right cheered, Dhillon may have alienated would-be supporters on the actual Republican National Committee, which is made up of activists and elected officials from all 50 states.
She has seized on several examples of apparent misspending and mismanagement under McDaniel's watch, which McDaniel's team — backed by former Trump officials like Wiles — claim are inaccurate or misleading.
In recent days, the attacks against McDaniel have intensified.
Last week, Dhillon promoted claims that a McDaniel ally raised concerns about Dhillon's faith in at least one private conversation. Dhillon, who is of Indian heritage, identifies as a member of the Sikh religion.
The McDaniel ally has denied the claim, which was outlined in a detailed email to the RNC's entire membership bearing the subject line “Religious Bigotry."
Dhillon also highlighted a Washington Post report that McDaniel has said, in multiple private conversations with RNC members, that only she can dissuade Trump from launching an independent presidential bid — and ultimately destroying the party's chances in the next presidential election — should he fail to win the GOP nomination.
“She said it to many people: Only I can control Trump,” Dhillon told the AP, likening such a statement to someone believing they could single-handedly stop an asteroid from crashing into Earth.
McDaniel said such claims are “ridiculous.”
“After working with President Trump for six years, I don’t think anybody could ever say they control him," McDaniel said.
Meanwhile, McDaniel warned of a “huge risk” if Republicans cannot stop the infighting as the 2024 election season begins. The GOP is well positioned to win the Senate majority and maintain control of the House, although the presidential contest will dominate much of the committee's focus.
“This is really critical as we head into ‘24 that we stop labeling, attacking, demonizing other Republicans to the point where we can’t bring them together post-primary,” she said.
For her part, Dhillon said she would “of course” unite behind McDaniel if she ultimately prevails Friday.
“Job 1 is winning elections,” Dhillon said. “I'm a team player.”
Associated Press writer Anthony Izaguirre in Tallahassee, Fla., contributed to this report.
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