Inside the Battle for Control of the Republican National Committee

As anger and frustration ripple through the Republican Party over its underwhelming performance in this year’s midterm elections, Republicans are offering a number of explanations for their losses.

Bad candidates. Weak fund-raising. The looming presence of Donald Trump. Election denial. The Democrats’ edge in the mechanics of running campaigns. Strategic and tactical errors by Republican leaders. Too much cultural red meat and not enough serious answers to the economic concerns of ordinary Americans.

Some in the Trump wing of the party have settled on their own scapegoat: Ronna McDaniel, who has been the chair of the Republican National Committee since 2017. Coming after McDaniel reshaped the committee in the former president’s image — it was even paying his considerable legal bills until recently — this discontent is a striking turn of events.

The committee’s 168 members from across the country will vote on McDaniel’s re-election in January. And the race has heated up over the last two weeks.

She has already deterred one challenge from Representative Lee Zeldin, this year’s Republican nominee for governor of New York, who briefly explored a run — but pulled back days later after finding only a few dozen potential supporters within the committee.

While McDaniel appears to have shored up her internal position, she is also contending with a hunger for change from outside the party’s formal structures. And the one person who might be able to secure her standing — Trump — has told aides that he is staying out of the race.

Roughly two-thirds of committee members are already backing McDaniel, according to a letter circulated by her allies.

The letter praises McDaniel’s investments in state parties, community centers and “election integrity units”; her decision to cut ties with the Committee on Presidential Debates, which hosts those much-anticipated events every four years; and her “ongoing investments in data, digital, and in a permanent ground game in key locations around the country.” McDaniel’s allies also credit her with raising $1.5 billion as party chair, including $325 million for the 2022 midterms, and for making gains in party registration in Arizona, Iowa, Nevada, North Carolina and Pennsylvania.

The race for R.N.C. chair is just one window into the Republican Party’s post-midterm demolition derby — with governors and senators leading an increasingly vocal anti-Trump chorus — but a revealing one. It’s proving especially useful for those who would prefer to change the subject from Trump, whose third presidential run has landed in the party with a mixture of trepidation and condemnation.

But it would be mistaken to see this as a proxy war over Trump, party insiders say. McDaniel’s supporters include longtime Trump backers like David Bossie, a Republican operative and committee member from Maryland — and she has declined to fault the former president in recent interviews. Her critics include members like Bill Palatucci of New Jersey, who has been one of Trump’s most vocal detractors.

The Aftermath of the 2022 Midterm Elections

Card 1 of 6

A moment of reflection. In the aftermath of the midterms, Democrats and Republicans face key questions about the future of their parties. With the House and Senate now decided, here’s where things stand:

Biden’s tough choice. President Biden, who had the best midterms of any president in 20 years as Democrats maintained a narrow hold on the Senate, feels buoyant after the results. But as he nears his 80th birthday, he confronts a decision on whether to run again.

Is Trump’s grip loosening? Ignoring Republicans’ concerns that he was to blame for the party’s weak midterms showing, Donald J. Trump announced his third bid for the presidency. But some of his staunchest allies are already inching away from him.

G.O.P leaders face dissent. After a poor midterms performance, Representative Kevin McCarthy and Senator Mitch McConnell faced threats to their power from an emboldened right flank. Will the divisions in the party’s ranks make the G.O.P.-controlled House an unmanageable mess?

A new era for House Democrats. Speaker Nancy Pelosi, the first woman to serve in the post and the face of House Democrats for two decades, will not pursue a leadership post in the next Congress. A trio of new leaders is poised to take over their caucus’s top ranks.

Divided government. What does a Republican-controlled House and a Democratic-run Senate mean for the next two years? Most likely a return to the gridlock and brinkmanship that have defined a divided federal government in recent years.

Enter Harmeet Dhillon

Harmeet Dhillon, right, with her client Kari Lake on Election Day in Phoenix.Credit…Brian Snyder/Reuters

The latest challenger to McDaniel emerged last week: Harmeet Dhillon, a lawyer and committee member from California who was co-chair of the group Lawyers for Trump in 2020 and gained a following for her attacks on public health restrictions during the pandemic.

Dhillon already has the backing of powerful voices on the right, including Tucker Carlson and Laura Ingraham, the Fox News hosts, as well as the executive committees of state parties in Arizona, Tennessee and Texas.

Announcing her candidacy last week on Carlson’s program, Dhillon said she was “hoping to gain the support of grass-roots Americans who do not like the direction of the party.” On Ingraham’s show, Dhillon accused McDaniel of fostering a “culture of retribution” at the committee and allowing it to be beholden to Washington’s “corrupt, consultant-driven machine.”

Mike Davis, a pugnacious conservative legal activist, is also backing Dhillon, as is Kurt Schlichter, a pro-Trump columnist for Ben Shapiro, the founder of The Daily Wire, and Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia have expressed interest.

Dhillon’s support appears especially deep among Republicans who insist that Democrats are stealing elections, particularly in Arizona. Among them are Charlie Kirk, the Trump-allied leader of Turning Point USA, a conservative group whose headquarters are in Phoenix, and his deputy, Tyler Bowyer, who is also a committee member.

“We are in the era of lawfare, and we keep on losing in the courts,” Kirk said on his program last week as he introduced Dhillon. “Maybe we should have a chairwoman of the R.N.C. that’s a lawyer that has a killer instinct.”

Nice work if you can get it

Dhillon has been paid handsomely for her legal work, several R.N.C. members have pointed out — she bills more than $1,000 an hour.

Her law firm earned over $1 million from the committee in 2021 and 2022 for “legal and compliance services,” according to Federal Election Commission records. In 2022 alone, the firm was also paid more than $445,000 for work on behalf of various entities linked to Trump. All told, since 2019, federal campaigns and committees have paid the Dhillon Law Group over $2.1 million.

This year, Dhillon worked for Kari Lake, the Republican nominee for governor in Arizona, though she is not listed on Lake’s suit against Maricopa County, the state’s largest. Dhillon’s law partner filed a lawsuit on behalf of Abraham Hamadeh, the Republican nominee for attorney general in Arizona, who is seeking to challenge the results of his still-uncalled race, which is heading to a recount with his Democratic opponent narrowly ahead.

In July, real estate records show, Dhillon bought a $3.5 million condominium with “elegant entertaining spaces” and “lovely water views” on a prestigious street in Russian Hill, a move within the same trendy neighborhood in San Francisco.

Dhillon was traveling and could not be reached for comment. But her allies counter that running for committee chair would work against her financial interests. Her support inside the committee is growing, they say; they estimate she has peeled off at least 18 former McDaniel allies so far, and has about 50 supporters overall. She already has enough backing to appear on the ballot in January.

In TV appearances and in calls to Republican donors, Dhillon has cited her First Amendment work with the Center for American Liberty, a conservative legal group she founded in 2018, and argued that the Republican Party needs to go on “offense” and do more to battle Democrats over election rules in advance, pointing to the success of Democratic lawyers like Marc Elias. And she has been critical of G.O.P.-linked corporate law firms like Jones Day, whose lawyers have given millions in personal donations to Democrats.


Dhillon’s tactics have mobilized and infuriated McDaniel’s allies inside the R.N.C. Longtime members have complained about receiving angry phone calls and emails after Dhillon tweeted out a link to a website put together by a conservative activist, Scott Presler, that included their contact information.

Others have chimed in on an internal committee listserv with arguments in favor of McDaniel, some of which were shared with The New York Times.

“I very much like Harmeet and she has a right to express her point of view,” wrote Jeff Kent, a committee member from Washington State. “But she does not have the right to go on national television and defame the character of the R.N.C. members who have chosen not to support her bid for chair.”

Kyshia Brassington, a committeewoman from North Carolina, said she was “disappointed with the direction” of Dhillon’s campaign, particularly with her insinuation that committee members were receiving “kickbacks” or “perks” in exchange for supporting McDaniel.

In another email shared with The Times, Mike Kuckelman, the chairman of the Kansas Republican Party, pointed to a recent article by my colleague Nate Cohn.

“As this analysis below points out, ticket splitting led certain Republicans in some states to win their races while others lost,” Kuckelman wrote. “If we want a better outcome than we saw in November, Republicans need to get serious about recruiting and electing strong candidates who can win general elections.”

Reacting to the blowback, Dhillon urged her Twitter followers to “please be kind” when contacting committee members.

The campaign has also put McDaniel on the defensive at times. One close ally, Ron Kaufman of Massachusetts, announced on Monday that he was stepping down as R.N.C. treasurer in what some committee insiders viewed as a concession to conservatives.

In a recent appearance on “Varney & Co.,” a show on the Fox Business Network, when the host asked McDaniel if Trump “bears any responsibility for some of the losses in the midterm elections,” she demurred.

“You know, I don’t like this,” she replied, pointing to Republican victories in Senate races in North Carolina and Ohio and high turnout among Republicans in Georgia, where Republican candidates won every statewide office except the Senate seat. “I’m not into the blame game right now.”

She added, “We need Trump voters, we need McCain voters, we need Romney voters, and then some if we’re going to beat the Democrats.”

What to read

  • Alan Feuer writes about a criminal charge whose viability could affect the cases of hundreds of people indicted in connection with the Capitol riot, and even whether Donald Trump himself is charged: the obstruction of an official proceeding before Congress.

  • Two decades after the 9/11 Commission, Congress is considering a similar panel to investigate the country’s ill-prepared response to the coronavirus pandemic, Sheryl Stolberg writes.

  • The Supreme Court refused to block a California law banning flavored tobacco, clearing the way for the state’s ban to take effect next week, Adam Liptak reports.

Thank you for reading On Politics, and for being a subscriber to The New York Times. — Blake

Read past editions of the newsletter here.

If you’re enjoying what you’re reading, please consider recommending it to others. They can sign up here. Browse all of our subscriber-only newsletters here.

Have feedback? Ideas for coverage? We’d love to hear from you. Email us at [email protected].

Back to top button