DANA POINT, Calif. – After nearly two months of barbs and accusations, a major fight for the future of the Republican Party concludes Friday at a luxury seaside resort in southern California’s Orange County.
That’s where the Republican National Committee’s (RNC) 168 members, gathering for their annual winter meeting, will hold a secret ballot vote for the national party’s next chair.
On the eve of the highly anticipated vote, one of the most popular politicians in the GOP weighed-in on the race, as Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis called for “a change” and urged “new blood” at the RNC. The conservative governor, whose seen his standing soar among conservatives across the country over the past three years, proceeded to give a shout-out to RNC chair Ronna McDaniel’s primary challenger, California committee member Harmeet Dhillon.
Remaining neutral on the eve of the vote was former President Donald Trump, who arguably remains the GOP’s most popular and influential politician, and the only major contender to date to launch a 2024 presidential campaign.
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The RNC showdown, their first hotly contested chair race in a dozen years, has become a contentious family feud as the GOP decides its leadership. All while the party jumps into an election cycle seeking to win back the White House, regain the Senate majority and hold its fragile control of the House. It also comes as the party aims to rebound from a disappointing showing in November’s midterm elections and as it debates the future of the party and Trump’s continued grip over the GOP.
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McDaniel, who’s running for a fourth term steering the RNC, which is unprecedented in modern times, is being challenged by Dhillon, an attorney who served as a Trump legal adviser. Dhillon announced her bid for RNC chair on the Fox News Channel early last month.
MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell, a strong supporter of Trump’s unproven claims that the 2020 presidential election was rigged and stolen, is also running as he wages a long-shot bid for the chair.
Mike Lindell debates at an RNC chair debate in Dana Point, California, on Wednesday
McDaniel, who, as Michigan GOP chair, was Trump’s handpicked choice to steer the committee after he won the White House in 2016, was reelected to the post in 2019 and 2021. McDaniel is urging stability while Dhillon runs an insurgent campaign, stressing that change is needed following the Republican Party’s lackluster performance in the 2022 midterms, which many in the GOP expected to be a red wave election.
In a national exclusive interview ahead of the vote, McDaniel told Fox News that RNC members “trust my leadership, and they know this is a critical, pivotal time that we cannot take down the infrastructure of the RNC and then be successful in 2024.”
McDaniel’s been a prolific fundraiser for the national party during her tenure leading the committee. According to McDaniel’s team, the chairwoman has hauled in a record $1.5 billion during her tenure, traveled more than half a million miles and held more than 330 donor events.
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But the GOP electoral setbacks in November during McDaniel’s tenure, such as the Republicans failing to win back the Senate and losing key gubernatorial races, as well as in 2018 when the party lost the House majority and in 2020 when it lost control of the Senate and the White House sparked calls for a change of leadership.
“The job of politics is elections, and it’s a binary choice. If we win, they lose and vice versa. And we’ve had too much losing over the last few years,” Dhillon told Fox News in a sit-down interview on the sidelines of the RNC meeting.
“I’ve been incredibly supportive of Ronna,” Dhillon said. ‘But you know, at the end of the day, like I said, this isn’t school. You don’t get a gold star forever. You don’t get to stay in your job forever. If you continuously under perform what you promised your clients, they don’t hire you the next time around.”
McDaniel, defending her record, emphasized that the RNC doesn’t “pick the candidates. The voters do. We don’t make the messaging. The campaigns do. But we are the turnout. And we won in every battleground state.”
“I think there’s a lot of misinformation, and that’s why I’m here,” she argued as he pointed to her detractors. “I want to make sure that we’re communicating to every voter because we need everyone investing so that we can win in 2023 and 2024.”
One of the brightest stars for the GOP in what turned out to be a disappointing cycle was DeSantis, who overwhelmingly won re-election in November.
Florida’s Governor Ron DeSantis after taking the oath of office waves to those in attendance at his second term inauguration in Tallahassee, Florida, on January 3, 2023.
“I think we need a change, I think we need to get some new blood in the RNC, I like what Harmeet Dhillon said about getting the RNC out of D.C.,” DeSantis said in a video posted to Twitter on Thursday.
DeSantis, who’s likely to launch a presidential campaign later this year, commented in an interview with Charlie Kirk, the founder of the conservative group Turning Point USA, a strong Dhillon supporter.
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Minutes after the DeSantis comments started going viral, Sen. Rick Scott of Florida – who preceded DeSantis as governor – gave a shout out of his own – to McDaniel. “@GOPChairwoman has played a major role in helping turn Florida red and fighting for conservative values across the country,” Scott tweeted.
Trump – the Republican with the most powerful endorsement – was keeping his powder dry.
Lindell, Dhillon and McDaniel all have healthy ties to Trump. The former president said in recent interviews that he liked both McDaniel and Dhillon, and sources in Trump’s political orbit say they weren’t expecting the former president to make a last-minute endorsement.
McDaniel released a few weeks earlier an endorsement from more than 100 RNC committee members — which far exceed the simple majority of the 168 members needed to win reelection.
“I’m the only candidate who’s put out a public list, people willing to put their name out, that they support me for chair over 100. That number has grown, I believe, and no other candidate has done that. So I feel good,” the chairwoman touted.
But Dhillon has repeatedly questioned the firmness of McDaniel’s advertised support as she courts MAGA hardliners and never-Trumpers who share a common interest in replacing McDaniel. In recent weeks, several state GOP delegations have passed no-confidence votes against McDaniel.
On Wednesday night, as she spoke with reporters, Dhillon was joined by Kari Lake, the Trump-backed Arizona GOP gubernatorial nominee in 2022 who’s contesting her November defeat in court. On the other end are establishment Republicans like Bill Palatucci, a longtime RNC committee member from New Jersey who’s a vocal Trump critic.
2022 GOP gubernatorial nominee Kari Lake of Arizona (left) joins RNC chair candidate Harmeet Dhillon in speaking to reporters, at the RNC winter meeting in Dana Point, California on Jan 25, 2023
The secret ballot vote means no one’s sure of the final result.
“Anybody who’s been through multiple RNC elections realizes that you really never know how the RNC membership is going to vote in a secret ballot. This thing could go either way,” a veteran RNC committee member, who asked to remain anonymous to speak more freely, told Fox News.
The sparring and accusations, both public and private, have grown intense over the past two months, with both the McDaniel and Dhillon camps accusing the other of intimidation tactics as they’ve repeatedly rolled out prominent endorsements.
“I’ve been hurt by some of the things that have been said about me. And I have had to run against a chair who promised two years ago that this would have been her last term as chair,” Dhillon told Fox News.
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McDaniel emphasized that she’s running “a unity race.”
“I’m not attacking my opponents,” the chairwoman added. “I’m running the race as the chair I want to be and the party that I want to lead, which is one that brings everybody in.”