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Republicans reelect a Trump loyalist as the head of the RNC

Jan. 27, 2023 Updated Fri., Jan. 27, 2023 at 1:53 p.m.

By Lisa Lerer and Jonathan Weisman New York Times

DANA POINT, Calif. — Members of the Republican National Committee reelected Ronna McDaniel on Friday to a fourth two-year term at the helm of the party, despite an angry pressure campaign from conservative activists and spirited calls from inside the committee for a leadership change after three successive elections of defeats and disappointments.

McDaniel, a Michigan GOP insider chosen by then-President Donald Trump to lead the party in 2017, promised she would be the agent of change that Republican activists wanted. That promise and years cultivating connections with the committee’s 168 members proved unbeatable as the party gears up for what is likely to be a wide-open primary for the 2024 presidential election and possibly a close race for the White House.

“We need the continuity at this point in time,” said Mike Kuckelman, the chair of the Kansas Republican Party. “There’s really no one challenging her that offers anything that is materially different than what she will do as our leader.”

But the campaign for RNC chair, usually a low-key contest, exposed deep discontent after Republicans lost the House in 2018 and the White House and Senate in 2020, and then turned in a historically anemic performance for a party out of power in 2022.

“The grassroots, they’re the ones that knock on the doors, they work the polls, they put the time in on campaigns, and when we come up empty-handed, they’re just scratching their heads, saying, ‘What in the world?’” said Beth Campbell, a Republican committee member from Tennessee. “They all want change. They want to win, is the bottom line.”

McDaniel, 49, the granddaughter of a moderate Republican governor of Michigan, George Romney, and a niece of Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, began her campaign for reelection with a majority of the committee members committed to her. But a fierce challenge by Harmeet Dhillon, a member from California, chipped away at her support, with Dhillon posting committee members’ personal email accounts online and encouraging party activists to weigh in.

In speeches nominating Dhillion before the vote, supporters urged the committee members to listen to a conservative base that was noisily advocating for a leadership change.

“We have the opportunity to elect a chair of the RNC that has the approval and the excitement of almost all the grassroots activists at home,” said Robin Armstrong, a member from Texas. With this support, Armstrong added, Dhillion will be in “a position to lead with strong winds behind her.”

Dhillon also persuaded state-level party organizations to get involved. She earned endorsements last weekend from state parties in Washington and Nebraska, before the meeting at the luxurious seaside Waldorf Astoria resort here in Dana Point, California, with broadsides against McDaniel’s leadership.

Days before that, Oscar Brock, a committee member from Tennessee, made a public appeal to members, tying McDaniel to Trump and saying it was “clearly time” for the party to move on from Trump’s leadership. And early in January, the Alabama Republican Party’s steering committee announced a vote of no confidence in McDaniel.

In an interview, Brock said he remained neutral in the fight for the Republican nomination for president in 2024 but that he was convinced McDaniel was beholden to the former president and his bid for another nomination.

“My loyalty is to running an independent primary, and I want a chairperson who can do that,” he said.

Shelly Gibson, a committee member from Guam, said Monday she had received 113 emails that day about the leadership race. Others reported voicemail boxes clogged with messages, thousands of emails and even visits to their homes from activists supporting Dhillon.

For a majority of the members, that was all noise.

“Members of the committee are a tightknit group, kind of like a family,” said Cindy Costa, an RNC member from South Carolina. “We don’t get into all this political stuff.”

The contest had an unexpected twist Thursday, when Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida waded into the fray, praising Dhillon and urging “new blood” at the committee. The comments were notable, given Trump’s decision to shy away from making an endorsement. While Trump has stayed silent, some of his top campaign aides were spotted circulating Thursday at the event in a luxury seaside resort. Thursday night, Kellyanne Conway, a long-serving Trump administration aide, was the guest speaker at dinner.

But as a proxy campaign to gauge Trump’s sway over the Republican Party, the race for party leader was imperfect. Dhillon was a co-chair of the election-denying group Lawyers for Trump in 2020 and never made Trump’s hold on the party an issue in her effort to unseat McDaniel. Mike Lindell, the CEO of MyPillow and a conspiracy-minded Trump loyalist, also challenged McDaniel.

It wasn’t clear how much Dhillon was willing to change direction, either. For instance, she said before the vote that she supported McDaniel’s decision last year to demand that Republican presidential candidates sign a pledge to not participate in any debates sponsored by the Commission on Presidential Debates.

“I fully support our party’s decision to part ways with the biased Presidential Debate Commission,” Dhillon said. “I would not change course on that.”

But some of the most outspoken anti-Trump members of the RNC came out in support of Dhillon, reasoning that her call for change best aligned with their efforts to move the party beyond the former president.

Ultimately, they did not have the votes. McDaniel had six years to win over the loyalties of a majority of committee members. And with some, the pressure campaign orchestrated by Dhillon actually worked against her. Accusations that McDaniel had bought off individual members and the leaking of personal emails left even some friends of Dhillon’s seething about vile voicemail messages and a deluge of emails.

“I cleared out my inbox this morning, and since 9 today, I’ve had another 50,” Campbell marveled in an interview at lunchtime Monday, saying she was in the passenger seat of her car combing through the latest messages.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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